With a Sherrin wedged under his right bicep and sporting Hawthorn’s team colours, Shem Tatupu, a year 13 student at St Peters College in Mt Eden, Auckland, sets off on a primary school visit in Melbourne – an exercise in winning young hearts and minds.
Not that the kids need converting to Aussie Rules, it’s just their allegiance might be still secured by the Kiwi wearing the incongruous tan and yellow colour scheme synonymous with the Hawks, one of the city’s many iconic footy clubs.
The strapping Aucklander is no Lance “Buddy” Franklin yet, but the 17-year-old who once aspired to be like Dad and play in the NRL, was still looked up to in awe by the grade three and four boys and girls at St Paul’s Primary School in Monbulk before he moved on to a clinic at Cockatoo Junior Football Club in Gembrook.
Tatupu certainly appreciates the value of the Australian Football League – and its 18 clubs – encouraging, even indoctrinating, the young and impressionable to play the country’s winter code.
Had the organisers of an AFL tournament at Kelston Boys’ High in 2009 not publicised the free gear on offer, Tatupu wouldn’t be planning a fulltime move to Melbourne to pursue a career in a sport that gained rare prominence in New Zealand when the Sydney Swans and St Kilda played their history-making premiership game in Wellington on Anzac Day.
Tatupu would have played the curtainraiser at Westpac Stadium but the clash coincided with New Zealand’s school holidays, so the novice full forward was at the Hawks headquarters at Waverley Park continuing his football education.
That has been a sporadic process for Tatupu since he became the second New Zealander – after Tauranga’s Kurt Heatherley – to obtain one of the Hawks’ international scholarships, an initiative designed to target, capture and nurture AFL-capable Kiwi kids though the HANZ Up (Hawthorn New Zealand) programme.
Unlike Heatherley, who decided to complete his schooling as a boarder at Caulfield Grammar, Tatupu opted to stay on at St Peters where he is in his second year in the first XV.
A 1.97-metre, 106kg centre, Tatupu appears custom made for either rugby code but instead the Hawks are intent on developing the teen into a next generation Franklin, the indigenous superstar who led the goal scoring stats leading into this weekend’s round.
The Warriors were interested in Tatupu joining their junior system, but despite Tony playing 67 games for the club in two stints, 1995-96 and 1998-2000, league was never a serious consideration.
A KiwiKick T-shirt and miniature Sherrin football meant Tatupu already recognised Aussie Rules could be a valuable commodity in his future when he was only 13.
“All my mates heard there was a tournament on at Kelston. We didn’t know the game but we heard there was free gear going,” he explained after a training session at the old VFL Park.
“Looking back I don’t there think was much, but anything free back then was awesome to me.”
St Peters won the tournament and Tatupu showed the requisite skills to be selected in a New Zealand under-16 team to compete against Pacific Island nations in Fiji – another reason for his loyalty to AFL.
“They’ve been pretty good to me, they’ve looked after me so well.”
Graham Wright remembers Tatupu, who had just turned 14, standing out – though only on account of his height.
“He grabbed my eye from the point of view of his size. He was 14 and 190cm. He looked like he was athletic but barely touched the ball. He didn’t do much, but he wasn’t alone there,” said Hawthorn’s recruiting and list manager.
Hawthorn had already committed to offering Heatherley a scholarship – a focal point of the club’s five-year-old project to scout New Zealand talent – but did not offer the same opportunity to Tatupu until he made a great second impression when the Hawks held a testing day in Auckland in 2010.
“He tested really well. His speed at 14 years old was comparable to 18-19-year-olds here. My feeling was if we don’t put him on a scholarship, someone might see him,” Wright said.
Since signing a deal which ties him to the Hawks until 2016, Tatupu hasn’t quite come along in leaps and bounds but he is marking a mark – an essential quality for a player who roams inside the 50.
“He’s been stepping up gradually to the point at the back end of last year he showed some enormous potential in some under-16 games in Sydney,” Wright said.
“He doesn’t look out of place at all. He can kick the ball, he can mark it. He just has to pick up the nuances of our game. Things like, ‘Where am I’m meant to be? Am I the target player?’
“The general knowledge of our game is what he’s lacking. The rest of it, he’s got . . . outstanding hands, he’s very good below his knees and above his head.
“He kicks the ball well with both feet. He’s got great speed and good agility,” enthused Wright, a Tasmanian who played 201 games for Collingwood.
“We think he’s got an enormous upside in where he can go.”
Unlike Heatherley, who has been in the Hawks’ nest for three years, Tatupu concentrates on the sport fulltime only when he moves to Melbourne in November.
On these study trips he plays for the Oakleigh Chargers in the TAC Cup – the source of an estimated 55 per cent of the AFL’s annual draft picks.
Tatupu had his second game for the Chargers last weekend before returning to Auckland, and admits it feels like he is coming out of left field.
After all AFL is second nature, a fair dinkum religion, for team-mates who have been watching and playing the game since they first understood a “disposal” wasn’t just something that happened to their nappy.
“I’m trying to get to grips with it, I’m taking small steps, just small steps,” he said.
Tatupu spends time practising AFL’s core skills: the hand ball and drop punt, but rarely experiences match practice in Auckland.
Instead, it is up to Tony – who also has no background in the sport — to assist his development before the experts take over in 2014.
“We have a few kicks together and the coaches [at AFL NZ] also help out. They give Dad instructions and he passes the knowledge on to me.”
Heatherley, 18, who is currently recovering from hip surgery, is also a valuable source of advice, a mentor for Tatupu, although he, too, is still learning the game.
“We’re good mates. Kurt teaches me. He’s one of my inspirations too. I’m following in his footsteps,” he said.
Tatupu also admires Franklin and Geelong forward Tom Hawkins, generally via YouTube because the AFL obviously doesn’t generate saturation coverage back home.
“I try to learn off them, all their little skills and stuff. I try and visualise what they do in my head after watching them.
“It’s amazing, eh, looking at them and aspiring to be like them.”
Hawthorn has a strong list and depth so there is no pressure on Tatupu to go fast-forward to full forward in the premiership.
His first goal is to play alongside Heatherley for Box Hill in the second-tier Victorian Football League next year.
And if their wings aren’t clipped there, the sky really could be the limit.
– © Fairfax NZ News, Chris Barclay