AFL Academy draft prospect Connor Ballenden felt right at home in New Zealand when he played the NZ Hawks in Auckland over the ANZAC weekend.
The tall forward, who has already been tipped as one of the brightest prospects in the 2017 draft pool, lived in New Zealand until he was four. He grew up just outside Auckland, travels with his parents to Christchurch most years to see his extended family and played rugby union in his youth.
Explaining to those family members that he is going to be in New Zealand to further his AFL ambitions has been an interesting exercise.
“They don’t know a lot about the game at all, but they love the idea that I’m trying to make it in the AFL and they support me with that, which is great,” Ballenden said.
“My dad is South African and mum is from New Zealand and we now live in Brisbane, so it’s a bit of a multicultural family but I’ve fallen in love with the game.”
His family will be there on Sunday, when the level one academy squad (comprising players eligible for next year’s draft) take on the New Zealand Hawks in Auckland. It is the centre-point of the five-day international camp for the team under coach Brenton Sanderson, and 16 AFL clubs are sending recruiters on the trip to track the next generation.
Next year’s draft is already considered a strong one and Ballenden will have many eyes on him after a number of impressive performances at last year’s NAB AFL Under-16 Championships.
The 198cm prospect was in that group, showing his talents near goal, in the air and on the ground. He has already performed well in the early stages of this season, too, pulling in nine marks and kicking 2.2 for Queensland in a trial game.
“As a tall player everyone wants someone who’s hard at the footy and takes some good marks and I want that to be a big part of my game,” the 17-year-old said.
“I’d like to think my skills as a tall player are pretty good, and I try to lead on the field as well.
“The first time I ever watched an AFL game was one of the Sydney and West Coast Grand Finals when I was in Melbourne on holiday as a little kid, and ever since then I went back to Brisbane and said ‘I want to play that game’.”
However, that single-mindedness did wane a little. Before he joined the Brisbane Lions academy as a 12-year-old, he was considering focusing purely on playing rugby union.
It wasn’t until he started training more with the Lions that he realised getting to the top level of Australian Rules was his priority, and the Lions will get first access to him next year under the academy bidding rules for their work.
“There was a stage where I was tossing up between rugby and AFL, and I didn’t know whether I really wanted to pursue the AFL when I was a younger teenager. I went to Lions academy trainings and started loving it and made new friends there,” Ballenden said.
“As a young kid I wasn’t as fit and didn’t have the skills to get where I am now, and the Lions academy has done a lot for me. I don’t think I can thank them enough.”
Story – afl.com.au