Aussies luring Kiwi kids into kicking and jumping game

By Anna Rushworth

The Australians are invading - but in a sporting way.

And New Zealand schools and rugby clubs are showing little sign of fighting them on the beaches, the playing fields or the streets.

Aussie Rules football is booming in schools across the country, with top Melbourne club Hawthorn leading the drive.

The club, in league with the New Zealand Australian Football League, has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the sport approved by the New Zealand Secondary Schools Sports Council.

One teenage Waikato player - the nephew of an All Black - has already made his choice.

Kurt Heatherley, 14, has become the first AFL International Scholarship player to be signed by Hawthorn. Heatherley, whose uncle Geoff Hines debuted for the All Blacks in 1980 and played 12 matches as flanker, has chosen Aussie Rules over his own promising sporting career in rugby.

He will receive specialist training and coaching with Hawthorn over the next three years and make regular visits from his home in Tauranga to Melbourne to train with the club.

Throughout New Zealand primary schools, a junior development programme called Kiwi Kick has already been going for eight months, and 1200 children are now playing the sport regularly.

Next year organisers hope to get 5000 school children playing Aussie Rules when the programme will move into 70 schools nationwide.

Hawthorn's general manager of personnel and strategy, Chris Pelchen, was quoted in The Australian as saying: "Every secondary school child will be exposed to AFL Football, every one of them."

One of the Auckland schools to take up the Aussie game with gusto is Green Bay High School, where 50 year 9 and 10 pupils are playing regularly after school.

Two have been picked to play in the Oceania Cup in Fiji in December.

The school's sports co-ordinator, Casey Redman, said the sport took off when it was introduced this year.

Garry Carnachan, executive director of the New Zealand Secondary Schools Sports Council, said Aussie Rules had to meet some criteria before it became the 43rd sport sanctioned to be taught in New Zealand schools.

Now it is available for all schoolkids to have a go - and Carnachan think it will become popular.

"We've always said that if it wasn't called Aussie Rules New Zealanders would have been playing it years ago."

Robert Vanstam, NZAFL CEO, said the sport was marketing itself as an alternative to rugby and soccer. "Sometimes rugby can be a bit rough for some children, and soccer a little bland, so we're a middle ground."

Vanstam said the fact that no visa is required and Australia is only three hours away makes us an untapped resource of future players.

"There's no reason why New Zealand can't take up a new game and be just as successful as Australia.

"First choice athletes are limited, there's a lot of different sports trying to get the same kids."

So confident is Vanstam that Aussie Rules will take off in New Zealand he predicts that in 10 years every All Black will have had the opportunity to choose between Aussie Rules and rugby.

Kurt Heatherley, for one, has already made that choice.

- Herald on Sunday

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