This afternoon a very interesting email arrived in the Sportsfreak inbox. It was from the AFL New Zealand, promoting a series of games between the AFL Flying Boomerangs and the U-16 New Zealand Hawks later this month.
The AFL Flying Boomerangs is a side made up of talented indigenous footballers. But there is more to it than that. The concept has been designed by the AFL as a personal development programme to instil leadership, enabling the footballers to better their communities.
The U-16 New Zealand Hawks were selected off the back of the national secondary schools tournament – and talented identified through the AFL New Zealand Combine Programme.
There are games on both the 12th and 14th December at Hutt Park – details can be found here.
In isolation, these games hardly seem like groundbreaking stuff. But the bigger picture shows that this is yet another foot in New Zealand’s door for the AFL.
A number of years ago, Kiwikick was introduced into a huge number of primary schools across New Zealand, with strong involvement from the Hawthorn Hawks. All that the young kids (30,000 and counting) had to do were sign up and learn the basics for an hour or so after school on a weekday, and they came away with a brown and yellow cap, brown and yellow bag, and a brown and yellow football.
Next step was a number of club scouts visiting age group rugby and league tournaments – and the AFL’s own events – to try and find some Kiwi talent to drag back across the ditch. The biggest success story so far on that front is former rugby/tennis/volleyball player Maia Westrupp (pictured above), who was signed by the Melbourne Demons at the age of 18 earlier this year. How was Westrupp discovered? By way of an AFL combine held in Wellington.
He’s not the first New Zealander to try and make his mark (so to speak) in the AFL – Wayne Schwass won a Premiership with North Melbourne in 1996. But this time are Shem Tatupu and Kurt Heatherly are also in the loop, both currently in the Hawthorn system (see a pattern emerging here?).
Then came the Anzac Day Premiership game held in Wellington between St Kilda and Sydney. It was the first of what was supposed to be a three year deal, but it was such a success that the deal was extended after just one game to 2018. It was the first in-season AFL game outside of Australia, and drew 22,183 fans.
Make no bones about it – that fixture is a joint effort between the Wellington Council, St Kilda, and the AFL.
And now (as they were in Wellington) the Australian High Commission is involved. As they have a focus on the development and support of indigenous sport in both countries, in this case they have provided funding to assist Maori players in the NZ squad with their travel costs in getting to Wellington.
The AFL has probably been the most proactive overseas organisation in making inroads into the New Zealand market, with the only sport coming close being baseball.
There is no suggestion that the AFL believe they will ever look to target rugby union in this country – they are not aiming to try and be the premier code. But one thing that they have done extraordinarily well is chip away at the all-important grass roots level.
You have to like their approach. It is subtle, but proving to be extremely effective.