ST Kilda head of football Chris Pelchen believes New Zealand could field a stand-alone AFL team within 20 years.
With the Saints set to play the first international match for premiership points against Sydney in Wellington on Anzac Day next year, Pelchen is confident interest in the sport will blossom across the Tasman.
St Kilda plans to set up a recruiting network throughout the country to chase potential AFL players currently playing other sports.
It is confident it can name an international scholarship player before the start of next season.
“I honestly believe New Zealand can have a team playing in the AFL competition in the foreseeable future,” Pelchen said this week.
“I don’t think it is going to happen in the next decade, but we’re not talking about 100 years. It may be in 20 years.
“We are talking about a population of 4.1 million. If you look at New Zealand, they have a very strong sporting culture.”
St Kilda has a five-game, three-year deal to play matches in Wellington, with the AFL admitting recently it would monitor the support for the games with an eye towards possible expansion.
St Kilda is following Hawthorn’s lead in developing a talent identification program across New Zealand.
Pelchen played a significant role in Hawthorn’s push into Tasmania when he was at the club before joining St Kilda last year.
The Hawks recently announced an international scholarship for 17-year-old Kurt Heatherley, who is originally from the Bay of Plenty.
While reluctant to discuss his work with the Hawks, Pelchen played a key role in helping to set up the club’s New Zealand connections.
But he remains buoyed by the blank canvas of recruiting Kiwi talent into the AFL.
“This is not just exciting for St Kilda; it is exciting for the AFL,” he said.
“We’ve seen players recruited from Ireland and elsewhere, and we’ve seen Mike Pyke from Canada, so I think it stands to reason we should have more players coming from our nearest neighbour.
“We have had players with New Zealand backgrounds before, such as Wayne Schwass, Trent Croad and, in more recent times, Shane Savage and Brent Renouf.
“But it is a surprise to me that we haven’t had a greater relationship with New Zealand from an AFL perspective.”
This story was originally published by Glenn McFarlane at www.heraldsun.com.au