A uniquely Australian sport is offering big opportunities for young sports stars in Northland.
Australian Football League, also known as Aussie Rules, is proving a surprise success with school kids.
They love learning a new game as well as honing their skills like kicking and catching, AFL New Zealand Northland co-ordinator Paul Hope says.
Renamed AFL KiwiKick here, the sport is like a 360-degree aerial game of full-contact rugby, with points scored by kicking between posts.
One unique part of the game is that players must not pass the ball, they have to punch it with their hands, Paul says.
Alternate versions of the game include 9-a-side touch.
Paul says hundreds of Northlanders have learned the game over the past two years through school programmes, after school programmes and secondary school introductions, with the sport offering part-time employment for up to 10 Northlanders.
The fact that many people don’t know the rules is part of the appeal, he says.
“It doesn’t matter, it’s just all about having fun,” he says.
“It complements other winter sports and builds on their fitness and ball skills.”
One player who has had to learn the rules in a hurry is 18-year-old Keeley Johnson.
The Kamo High School player was introduced to the sport by Paul less than a year ago and has now been selected for the New Zealand under-20s team.
“I just knew that it was an Australian sport and that it was huge over there.
“I didn’t really know the rules but it’s definitely a great game to go out and play.”
Keeley is no stranger to sport – he also represents New Zealand in the under-20s hockey team and has played rugby all his life.
He is now training hard for an AFL match against Victoria in Wellington in October.
“We got told we’ve got to train as much as we can because those Aussie teams are another level,” he says.
But the talent of New Zealand players has caught the eye of the Australians.
Paul says Melbourne-based club Hawthorn Hawks offer fours scholarships to New Zealanders, each worth $AU175,000 a year.
The club is now considering doubling the number, while another Melbourne club St Kilda is also looking over the ditch after playing a game in Wellington this year.
Keeley says he would love to play for the Hawthorn Hawks, his favourite team.
But he also believes New Zealand could soon front a team in the AFL, much like the Warriors in the rugby league competition.
© Denise Piper, 14/08/2012, Fairfax NZ News – This article was originally featured here