College sports: AFL scouts on mission to mine likely talent

By Dylan Cleaver

AFL St Kilda head recruiter Tony Elshaug checks out Kiwi talent at Waitakere Stadium this week. Photo / Sarah Ivey
AFL St Kilda head recruiter Tony Elshaug checks out Kiwi talent at Waitakere Stadium this week. Photo / Sarah Ivey

As the 18 men of St Kilda's AFL team run on to the turf at Wellington's Cake Tin on Anzac Day, they will do so not just as playoff hopefuls, but also as missionaries hoping to spread their religion throughout the country.

Representatives from the club were in Auckland this week, checking out potential crossover players at Waitakere's Trusts Stadium. Included in their number was highly regarded head of football Chris Pelchen.

Club bosses see rich athletic potential to mine in Auckland, a point emphasised by chief executive of AFL New Zealand Robert Vanstam.

"We're not looking to steal athletes from the NZRU or NRL," Vanstam said in reference to the recent spate of code-hopping by Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt. "We're more interested in giving kids here another option."

Hawthorn have done it in the past, most notably with Kurt Heatherley who plays for a Hawthorn feeder team in the TAC Cup and has transitioned from an International Scholarship player to an International Rookie.

Pelchen was Hawthorn's list manager at the time of Heatherley's signing.

He is still some way from making an AFL debut, but his progress has been smooth enough to convince scouts there is plenty of talent here.

The Saints have made a deal with the Wellington City Council and the AFL to play "home" matches on Anzac Day at the Cake Tin until at least 2015.

Chief executive Michael Nettlefold expected a sellout crowd in Wellington, bringing St Kilda to an untapped fanbase. With St Kilda among the 10 of 18 AFL clubs based in or near the Victorian capital, their home market is saturated.

"The sport is new to many people in New Zealand, so we're hoping to be at the forefront of something special. And to be able to build links with New Zealand on Anzac Day is a wonderful thing."

As a Hawthorn fan said: "Kiwis are in the fortunate position of being able to choose which club to support."

So who should we avoid? "Collingwood."

Nettlefold said there was no chance his players would be less focused given the unusual nature of the Wellington match.

"It's a fast and dramatic sport," said St Kilda coach Scott Watters. "There's nothing like these athletes anywhere in the world. The action moves quickly and around 360 degrees. "We reckon we've got the greatest sport in the world and we think Kiwis will agree."

- additional reporting Winston Aldworth

- NZ Herald

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