WHEN Hawthorn coaxed Kurt Heatherley from New Zealand, he didn’t even know Australian Rules grounds had four posts at each end.
Now the athletic defender is on the fringes of breaking into Alastair Clarkson’s powerhouse team and becoming the first born-and-bred Kiwi to play AFL.
It’s no small achievement, although the 21-year-old is impatient to make his debut just like any other footballer.
But even getting to the stage where he’s being talked about as a replacement for Brian Lake might never have happened if not for the persistence of gun recruiter Graham Wright.
Wright first spotted the rangy Kiwi playing under-16s basketball on tour in Tasmania and tucked away the talented youngster’s name as a potential international rookie.
But when the recruiter called Heatherley at school a few months later to offer a speculative career across the ditch, he was given short shrift.
“I was shooting basketball hoops at lunchtime and answered the phone and he said ‘do you want to give AFL a go?’,” Heatherley told AFL.com.au.
“Because I was at boarding school I thought it was just my mates pranking me, so I pretty much hung up the phone on him.
“Another three months after that, he got hold of mum and dad and it ended up that (former Hawks president) Jeff Kennett came over and said ‘hey, do you want to give this a crack?’.
“I thought it was a toss-up between basketball and this, and I thought a new challenge, something different, and if it doesn’t work out or I didn’t like the sport I could go back to basketball.
“I thought I’d give it a few years and see what comes of it and I haven’t looked back since.”
Feeling settled after initially taking time to adapt to a new lifestyle – his parents have now moved over to Melbourne too – Heatherley’s football has blossomed.
The 193cm backman finished third in Box Hill’s best and fairest last year and he’s soaking up knowledge from premiership stars Josh Gibson and Luke Hodge, who want to hand over the club in strong shape to the next generation.
Kicking the oval ball and putting Clarkson’s game-plan into practice are works in progress for Heatherley, although the Hawks love his raw aggression and the strong tackling inherent from his rugby background.
“I’m slowly getting a bit more comfortable down there (in defence),” Heatherley said.
“I’ve been over here three or four years, so it has taken me a while, but I’m slowly starting to make inroads.
“(The hardest thing to learn) would probably be positioning. I would be standing on the 50m line and the ball would go over my head, so the next time I would be standing back a little bit and then the ball would come in front of me.
“I learnt so much from (Lake) about positioning and reading the flight of the ball. He was obviously one of the best that’s ever played down back.”
Heatherley played a half in the NAB Challenge opener against Carlton last Friday in an audition for Lake’s spot.
A dream debut is a possibility for the boy from Tauranga, who is excited to think his story might inspire other Kiwis.
Trent Croad, Wayne Schwass and Hawk-turned-Saint Shane Savage are some of the AFL players with New Zealand heritage, but a born-and-bred Kiwi is yet to make the leap.
If that happened to be Heatherley in round one against Geelong on Easter Monday, the Hawks can expect a frenzy of ticket requests from his family.
“There would be a few I’d think … cousins, uncles. But there’s still a long way to go yet, there’s still another few weeks,” he said.
Heatherley, who is contracted until the end of 2017 after being upgraded from the rookie list, is the first to admit he’s facing stiff competition from Angus Litherland, Kaiden Brand and Matt Spangher.
But even if he misses out early this season, he’s determined to make it in the AFL.
“I’ve put a lot of time and effort into it,” Heatherley said.
“Same with the other New Zealand lad that’s come over, (Hawks teammate) Shem Tatupu … and the club has put a lot of time and effort into us.
“It would be good to pay back the faith.”
Hawthorn will take on Richmond in the NAB Challenge this weekend and will be telecast live on TVNZ Pop-Up Freeview channel 13 at 6.30pm NZT.
Story By Travis King – afl.com.au