St Kilda recruit Shane Savage is ready and willing to fly the flag for AFL in New Zealand.
The Auckland-born 23-year-old is in Wellington this week for a Saints community camp ahead of the Anzac Day match against the Brisbane Lions at Westpac Stadium.
Savage was yesterday the first player to try on the new Maori-inspired guernsey, designed by Massey University students Jason Sheardown and Kahu Douglas.
He is the perfect marketing tool for St Kilda, and it is the start of a link that Savage hopes will see AFL grow in prominence throughout his birth country.
The midfielder moved to Australia when he was two but does not consider himself an Aussie.
“Na, no way. I still consider myself a proud Kiwi playing the game of AFL. I still like to think of New Zealand as my home and for St Kilda to have the partnership they do for the next five years is going to be a great opportunity for me.
“Not only to expand the game of AFL but to get back to my country and I guess give back to the community as well. To be playing on Anzac Day, in my country of birth, is just going to be a great honour and I’m going to wear it [the guernsey] with great pride on that day.”
Savage was drafted by Hawthorn in 2008 and kicked 37 goals in 56 games between 2009-13.
But he fell out of favour last year during the Hawks’ premiership run and was traded to St Kilda in October.
“I guess New Zealand was a big reason why I probably came over to St Kilda as well as opportunity. I’ve still got a lot of family here. My father is of Maori heritage and my mum’s a Pakeha. Every year, in Australia, we still like to have a hangi over Christmas. It’s great to still celebrate those sort of things even though I’m in Australia.”
St Kilda are firmly in rebuilding mode after finishing 16th of 18 teams last year, with five wins and 17 losses.
Coach Scott Watters was sacked in November and has since been replaced by former Port Adelaide assistant Alan Richardson.
The Sydney Swans beat the Saints 79-63 last year at Westpac Stadium in the first AFL game to be played for premiership points outside of Australia.
The game attracted a crowd of 22,546, including 5000 visitors from Australia, and gave the capital’s economy an estimated $9 million boost.
Savage and other St Kilda players are visiting local schools and communities around the Wellington region as part of their four-day tour.
Brisbane finished 12th last year with a 10-12 record.
Originally published in the Dominion Post