Kaitaia’s Claudia McMeekin has become a breakthrough performer when it comes to sport.
In 2008, she became one of the select few females to represent Northland at the Roller Mills primary schools rugby tournament. She had a blinder at the tournament and became the first or maybe second – the history is unclear – female to make the tournament team.
This week she is poised to make another piece of history in Whangarei as she takes part in the first women’s AFL international series in New Zealand. As captain no less – a surprise announcement made at the weekend.
The U-18 New Zealand Kahus take on the Australia Youth team at Kensington Park tomorrow in the third match of the series and two Northlanders, McMeekin and Whangarei’s Setareh Brown, are in the Kiwi side.
The pair are part of a 14-member team selected from a larger number of players, who have been part of the 2013 national high performance programme.
Some of the Auckland-based players have played for a couple of years or more, others like McMeekin, are new to the sport this year.
The 18-year-old Kaitaia College student admits she is still coming to grips with the sport.
“AFL’s a really cool game. We don’t see much of it over here but I watched a live AFL game at the Gabba when we went over to Brisbane and I was just blown away at how fast the game was and how fit you have to be,” she said.
McMeekin can play most sports and her athleticism has helped her to impress the selectors.
“For me it brings together all the skills that I’ve learned from different sports – like rugby and soccer, with the accuracy of kicking, and even basketball, which helps with the jumping.”
She continues to play other sports, particularly rugby where she is a member of the Northland women’s sevens team, but the 18-year-old is confident that she is able to continue juggling all her sporting commitments – for the rest of the year at least.
She is in her final year at college and will take up her Te Tai Tokerau McDonalds Scholarship and study business at AUT University next year.
With the International AFL Cup in August next year, McMeekin is hoping for some international travel but AFL may open other doors for her in Auckland.
“I guess there are opportunities in every sport – even though AFL is very new here,” she said.
“AFL’s already paying off for me because Mick [AFLNZ development officer Mick Coultard] offered me a part-time job – going into primary schools and teaching kids the basic skills of AFL.”
Game in North comes on in leaps and bounds
Northland hosts its first AFL international tomorrow – a result perhaps of the football code beginning to get some traction among the youth of the province.
The match between the U18 New Zealand Kahus and the Australian Youth Girls team at Kensington Park is a part of the first international series involving females on New Zealand soil.
Australian Rules Football – or AFL – is beginning to be played by some big numbers around the country as a result of a push by the AFL into areas of Australia and New Zealand that traditionally haven’t played the sport.
North Shore-based AFLNZ development officer Mick Coultard said the game had been in New Zealand a long time but had been truly developed only in the last six years.
The AFLNZ was launched six years ago and in the last three or four years had seen momentum build.
“Since AFLNZ’s inception, we’ve had about 30,000 primary school and 5000 secondary school kids play the sport every year and that will continue to grow,” he said.
This year the game in New Zealand had received a boost when the Sydney Swans and St Kilda Saints played an Anzac Day AFL competition match in front of a big crowd in Wellington – the first held outside Australia – signalling the Australian organisation’s support of the fledgling sport in New Zealand.
Several Northlanders have already made national age-group sides. Te Rei Clark was included in the South Pacific U16 team and the national U-18 team, and Dargaville’s Alex Barnsley was another to represent his country when he was recently selected for the national U18 team.
AFLNZ offers Northland schools its “AFL Secondary School Combine” – a package of fitness testing and basic AFL instruction during PE classes – and allows the code to offer athletes who excel the opportunity to join the AFL High Performance Programme.
Whangarei Boys, Whangarei Girls, Kamo HS, Tikipunga HS, Dargaville HS, Bay of Islands College, and Excellere College have all become involved in AFL.
Bay of Islands College sports co-ordinator Linda Scott said the game had been well received by students and staff at the school. It had produced promising players, with Te Kopa Tipene-Thomas and Matiu Cowles playing at nationals at the U16 level.
“It’s all starting to build now … We’ve got a junior boys’ team and we’re hoping to get a junior girls’ team up and running in term four,” she said.
Around 20-25 boys from the region joined the high-performance programme in its first year, with more expected to join in this year’s programme which just got under way at the start of the month.
Most of those who join the programme – boys and girls – go on to play at the nationals, with the lucky ones selected for national squads.
*Originally published in the Northern Advocate