Talented Kiwi teen thriving through AFL

Jumping Joe Baker-Thomas’ mates were playing rugby yesterday, he was practising AFL.

The Porirua teenager’s life changed in April when he was handed a surprise international rookie scholarship with Wellington’s adopted club St Kilda.

He had barely kicked a Sherrin in anger before that but the club’s talent scouts took a punt on his rare physical gifts and athleticism.

The 17-year-old is completing his year 13 studies at Porirua College and in July visited the Melbourne club for intensive training and initiation into the rigours of Australia’s most popular winter code.

Also talented in rugby, league and high jump, Baker-Thomas is one of three Porirua students selected in New Zealand’s under-18 team to play two games next month.

“I’m getting the hang of it now,” Baker-Thomas said yesterday.

“The first thing to learn was passing with your fist, compared to rugby. Our first XV played today but it’s strictly AFL at the moment. It’s quite hard seeing them play and not being able to, but then again this is an opportunity you’ll probably get only once in your lifetime.

“Some of my mates are impressed, some a bit jealous.”

Baker-Thomas stayed with St Kilda’s giant ruckman Ben McEvoy during his visit to Melbourne – “he’s a real Aussie farm boy and cooks a nice soup” – and soaked up the atmosphere at the club’s game against Geelong.

He is being earmarked as a centre half forward or centre half back and is being trained and mentored by AFL New Zealand coach Shannon Wall, a Tasmanian now living in Wellington.

“We catch up twice a week, go through skills and drills,” Wall said.

“I look after his weights programme and go through video footage and teach him the rules and tactics. He’s doing really well and is a great kid to coach. He knows if he works really hard at it, he can make a career out of AFL.

“I feel for him because he wants to be with his mates. But he knows it’s a wonderful opportunity. He’s got a great leap, a great sized body and endurance so he’s got the raw tools.”

Baker-Thomas and the national under-18 side will take on a Victorian amateur team on October 5 and 7 in Auckland.

He will then play for the North City Demons in the Wellington senior club competition while St Kilda monitor his progress.

“After that they’ll decide whether to keep him here a little bit longer or move him to Melbourne to play over there next year,” Wall said.

St Kilda and the AFL are both keen to continue their international growth following the historic Anzac Day game at Westpac Stadium.

Hawthorn have two young Kiwis on their books, Kurt Heatherley and Shem Tatupu, while Maia Westrupp is with the Melbourne Demons.

– © Fairfax NZ News  – Original story written by Sam Worthington