Hawks turn their sights to NZ as a happy hunting ground

Hawthorn is looking to our side of the Tasman for teenage rookies.

THE AFL will play the first game in New Zealand for premiership points this year, but for four years Hawthorn has been steadily mining Kiwi talent.

While St Kilda will pioneer games in New Zealand, Hawthorn has been working assiduously to stockpile potential players.

As some clubs, including Hawthorn, persist with exploring Ireland to try turning a Gaelic 20-something into an AFL 100-game-plus  player with varying degrees of success, the Hawks are chasing another back-door route for players in the new Tasman market.

Hawthorn had an Irish player come and go in a cameo before Christmas – he went home for the break and didn’t return – but  the Hawks have not closed the door on the Irish experiment after the AFL changed rules recently to allow Irish rookies to remain outside the main rookie list.

However, New Zealand is an appealing market for talent outside the normal limited pool.

‘‘We have had four or five years of preparing in New Zealand and knowing that it was going to be a longer-term project and that potentially you might get nothing out of it,’’ Hawthorn recruiting and list manager Graham Wright said.

He acknowledged clubs had to enter with eyes open to the idea that it was speculative. This has meant that for some clubs New Zealand and Ireland have been prohibitively expensive.

‘‘It’s like gold prospecting. You are out there searching, knowing that potentially you might not find anything. In our case we think we have been lucky that we have got two boys who will come onto our list this year and where they go and how far they go in their AFL careers will be up to them,’’ Wright said. ‘‘But we have not had a pick inside 12 since I have been at Hawthorn and I am starting my seventh year now and we felt we had to look elsewhere for potential talent.

‘‘So going outside of the traditional talent pathways was important to us while not losing focus on what is most important to us, which is the draft and now free agency and trading.’’

Quietly over summer the Hawks committed to a second New Zealand player, Shem Tatupu, on a multi-year rookie contract after having invested several years on him as an international scholarship player.

Earlier the club had signed Kurt Heatherley to a three-year contract after signing him as a teenage scholarship player at the end of 2009.

Both players are formidable athletic talents whose scope for playing AFL will be based not on their physical suitability for the game but their capacity to develop their understanding of the game.

Heatherley is 195 centimetres, weighs 88 kilograms, and figures in the elite bracket for speed for players of his size. He was able to be priority listed by the Hawks, but was ineligible to join the primary list this year by one day – his birthday is January 1 and the cut-off was 2012.

As it was, he needed a hip operation and will not play until May in the TAC Cup as an 18-year-old. It is believed this will help his football education more than playing against experienced players in the VFL.

His education has already been an amusing one. As an 18-year-old he remains eligible for the AIS system and recently went with the AIS group to Canberra where they met  former AFL stars as mentors.

He returned to Waverley and advised them of his new mentor. ‘‘He seemed like a nice bloke. Big fella, called Djokovic or something.’’ It was Glen Jakovich. He was quickly informed of his mentor’s lengthy CV, but at least they will have the mangling of names in common.

One club recruiter has reckoned that had the former NZ under-16 basketball captain been available for last year’s draft he might have been a top-20 pick.

Tatupu is of Tongan and Samoan parentage – his dad played for Auckland Warriors –  and is 197 centimetres and  106 kilograms as a 17-year-old. He  is extremely quick and can kick with both feet and has good hands. In short, he has all the tools to play, but, like Heatherley, he is now working out how to play.

© Michael Gleeson, The Age. This story originally published here.