THE DEBUT of a New Zealand AFL player is considered inevitable and could happen in the next two months, with the League’s push across the Tasman set to go into overdrive when it occurs.
There are six Kiwis on AFL deals, with Hawthorn rookie Kurt Heatherley the most advanced after joining the club as an international scholarship holder more than four years ago.
The anticipated debut of Heatherley, who has played as a defender with VFL club Box Hill this year, is a realistic proposition in the second half of the season as the Hawks battle a lengthy injury list.
An athletic backman, he impressed through the pre-season and played two NAB Challenge matches, proving he could hold his own against AFL-level competition.
“We’ve been really impressed with his ability to build game knowledge and retain it,” said Damian Carroll, the head of Hawthorn’s development academy.
“The fact we’ve got a lot of experienced defenders and experienced players means he would be able to fit in and play a role if required.
“We’d love to see that this year but we’re looking at the bigger picture with Kurt and where his footy is going down the track.”
There have been a number of New Zealand-born players on VFL-AFL lists, including Wayne Schwass and Trent Croad, but all of them took on Australian football after moving to Australia at a young age.
The Hawks have been pioneers in New Zealand and hold three of the League’s six kiwi players, with Shem-Kalvin Tatupu on the rookie list and Siope Ngata holding an international scholarship.
St Kilda’s Joe Baker-Thomas and Giovanni Mountain-Silbery, and Melbourne’s Maia Westrupp also hold international scholarships.
As a close watcher of New Zealand talent, St Kilda list manager Ameet Bains believes it is a matter of when, not if, a New Zealand player debuts.
Having visited the country last month to scout junior talent, he said unveiling a New Zealand player at AFL level would encourage more Kiwi athletes to try the sport.
“Where things sit, Kurt Heatherley is clearly the closest to playing,” Bains told AFL.com.au.
“My own personal view is it’s only a matter of time until he does play – not if, but when.
“Once he does play, that’ll be the single greatest marketing tool for the AFL with respect to getting other athletes in New Zealand to try their hand at AFL.”
At the end of last year Heatherley and Tatupu were both upgraded to category B rookies at Hawthorn – a list provision that allows clubs to have an extra four players who are either international rookies or alternative athletes.
St Kilda’s Baker-Thomas and Mountain-Silbery are some way behind Heatherley in their development, but both are progressing with their understanding of the game.
Bains stressed that Baker-Thomas, who relocated to Melbourne in February, would only be eligible to be drafted at the end of this year if he was an Australian player.
“He’s been playing a mix of VFL development team with Sandringham and TAC Cup with the Sandringham Dragons,” Bains said.
“The biggest challenge at the moment is learning the game sense and tactics and strategy in the positions he’s playing, whether it’s key forward, key back or a little bit of ruck.
“Athletically he’s very strong.”
Mountain-Silbery, who signed with the Saints in February and is “incredibly raw”, remains in New Zealand and played his first game of Australian football in the lead up to the Anzac Day match in Wellington.
The attraction from St Kilda’s point of view is his rare power and explosiveness for a 16-year-old athlete who stands 196cm and weighs 96kg.
Indeed, it is the size and athleticism, Bains says, that sets New Zealand athletes apart and potentially makes the country a fertile recruiting ground in the future.
“We see it as an untapped resource that we can exploit,” Bains said.
“Ireland is still the first preference for international recruiting for most clubs.
“But if [New Zealand] guys start playing I think that’ll change over time.
“AFL clubs will see these guys are available only three hours across from Melbourne.”