Joe Baker-Thomas received some good and bad news this week.
The good is the 17-year-old from Porirua is off to Melbourne next year as his international scholarship with AFL club St Kilda steps up a notch.
The bad is the flight date he has been given.
“I’m going on the first of February so I’m pretty rapt about that,” said Baker-Thomas, a former rugby player and high jump star who was signed on his raw athletic potential in April.
“There’s just one little issue, it happens to be my mum’s birthday. How sad. She asked me what time I’m going so I’m guessing she’s pretty angry.”
Since being signed Baker-Thomas has played about 10 AFL games for the North City Demons in the local club competition and for Wellington in the NPC.
He has also been training one-on-one with AFL New Zealand High Performance coach Shannon Wall, but it is fair to say there were some teething problems.
“Oh, it was shocking,” Baker-Thomas recalled.
“My first game I actually threw a rugby pass, got called up, shocking, shocking.”
Baker-Thomas has been learning the ropes as a centre half back, where his 1.95m and still growing frame proves handy in spoiling the marking endeavours of opposition centre half forwards.
But learning the intricacies of this foreign game will take years and next year he will play for St Kilda’s feeder club Sandringham in either the elite under-18 competition or the Victorian open-age development league.
“Joe has come a long way in a short space of time considering he wasn’t even aware of the AFL 12 months ago,” said St Kilda’s head of football, Chris Pelchen.
“He has progressed significantly with his football skills and we hope to build on this development through his training in the Saints player academy programme in 2014.”
Baker-Thomas will live with a host family in Melbourne, and, while thrilled with the opportunity, admitted he would miss the home comforts.
“Every Sunday we have a traditional island lunch so I’m going to miss that. Hopefully they have it at the market.”
Baker-Thomas’ progress is music to the ears of AFL NZ chief executive Robert Vanstam.
There are also three Kiwi youngsters on the books of AFL champions Hawthorn (Kurt Heatherley, Shem Tatupu and Siope Ngata) while Maia Westrupp is with the Melbourne Demons.
He said Australia’s interest in New Zealand talent was far from token and would only increase.
“Shem and Kurt, the likelihood is those boys will play AFL because of the time and effort that Hawthorn has put into them,” Vanstam said.
“The AFL is so competitive, if you get three clubs over here the other 15 want to know what’s going on.”
Vanstam said 30,000 kids were participating in the AFL KiwiKick programme while St Kilda’s annual Anzac Day game in Wellington was a huge boost.
But he admitted his sport needed a Kiwi star succeeding in the AFL to start really breaking through in the public’s consciousness.
He hoped new St Kilda signing Shane Savage could be that man.
“Everyone’s hero is Richie McCaw and Dan Carter but maybe in the future it’ll be Shane Savage,” Vanstam said.
“He’s a Maori boy playing for St Kilda, New Zealand-born. It’s going to take someone who’s passionate about their Kiwi identity and will stand up on the AFL stage and promote that fact. If we had someone who pointed to their Maori tattoo on TV and said ‘this is where I’m from’, I think that’s when it starts to make an impact in New Zealand.”
Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown and Porirua mayor Nick Leggett both offered their congratulations to Baker-Thomas yesterday.
The Wellington City Council invested $400,000 to help bring AFL to the city and St Kilda will play the Brisbane Lions on Anzac Day next year.
“It’s great to see the benefits of the AFL partnership spreading through the region,” Ms Wade-Brown said.
“Wellington city has forged a positive relationship with St Kilda and the AFL, we place a lot of importance on our sporting and cultural links, particularly with Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, which have good spin-offs for the wider region.”
Yesterday, St Kilda launched 2014 New Zealand membership packages.
They include a ticket to the Anzac Day game and a range of digital access and merchandise.
“We’re very ambitious for our plans in New Zealand and we aim to have 5000 NZ members in the next three years,” Pelchen said.
Original story by Sam Worthington, published in the Dominion Post