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Anzacs remembered at last year’s AFL event at West­pac Stadium.

For a coun­try where sport is such an import­ant and oft-cel­eb­rated part of its cul­tur­al frame­work, New Zea­l­and is strangely bereft of tra­di­tion­al sport­ing fix­tures, even more so when it comes to cel­eb­rat­ing days of nation­al sig­ni­fic­ance. Wait­angi Day has nev­er had any event attached to it, and Anzac Day has nev­er had any asso­ci­ated sport­ing tra­di­tions, des­pite being in the middle of the rugby uni­on and league seasons.

Even the much-vaunted tra­di­tion­al “Basin Reserve tra­di­tion­al Box­ing Day test” is now neither tra­di­tion­al nor at the Basin Reserve. It took place on only four occa­sions, but the fact that it is still referred to as a tra­di­tion shows that people real­ise there is a void out there.

The main sport­ing events that occur in the same place at the same time every year are Christchurch’s racing week, and the Wel­ling­ton Sev­ens. That emphas­ises the void even further.

Maverick Weller of the Saints is tackled by Ryan Griffen of the Bulldogs during the 2014 AFL Round 20 match between the St Kilda Saints and the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne on August 10, 2014. (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media)

Mav­er­ick Weller of the Saints is tackled by Ryan Grif­fen of the Bull­dogs dur­ing the 2014 AFL Round 20 match between the St Kilda Saints and the West­ern Bull­dogs at Eti­had Sta­di­um, Mel­bourne on August 10, 2014. (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media)

This vacancy is now being filled by an unlikely source. The St Kilda Aus­trali­an Foot­ball League match in Wel­ling­ton is a slick affair, and is about so much more than just the match on Anzac Day.

Last year saw a not-unex­pec­ted drop-off in crowd num­bers from the inaug­ur­al event, and there were vari­ous reas­ons for that. The ‘dif­fi­cult second album’ syn­drome was always likely. Last year missed out on the nov­elty factor from year one, both in terms of loc­al fol­low­ing and those mak­ing the trip from Aus­tralia. It also coin­cided with school hol­i­days in both coun­tries, which pushed up trans-Tas­man air­fares as well as empty­ing out Wellington.

How­ever, when match day arrived, they man­aged to cre­ate an exper­i­ence subtly dif­fer­ent from nor­mal fare at West­pac Sta­di­um. A giant screen was erec­ted on the Fran Wilde Walk­way show­cas­ing the sport and its his­tory. That may seem like a small ges­ture, but it acted like a giant elec­tron­ic wel­come mat: yes, you are back at a famil­i­ar place, but this is different.

St Kilda’s effer­ves­cent mas­cot, who of course is called Tre­vor, had been busy all week and greeted spec­tat­ors as they arrived at the game. Fire-eat­ers were out­side the sta­di­um; inside, a brass band circled the con­course, there were prizes for spin­ning the wheel and there was plenty of mer­chand­ise on sale. Inter­est­ingly, the queues appeared to be full of New Zealanders.

This is what pleased St Kilda man­age­ment the most: a con­nec­tion devel­op­ing between the loc­als and the club that has inves­ted in the idea. A real bond will take time, but it has started.

A fea­ture of the event was the Anzac Day pageantry: the ‘Last Post’, the speeches, the flags, the double anthems and the silence. An eer­ie silence, observed with rev­er­ence by over 99 per­cent of those at the ground. Say what you like, the Aus­trali­ans do this very well.


St Kilda play­ers Josh Saun­ders and jack Steven flank­ing Wel­ling­ton City deputy may­or Justin Lester at the 100 Day Count­down to Anzac Day event in Janu­ary. Photo: Clive Pigott.

St Kilda lost, as they had the pre­vi­ous year, but sup­port­ers of Wel­ling­ton-based sides are used to this. On the pos­it­ive side, this was a good match — unlike the dew-affected, mud­dling, spill-the-ball affair from the pre­vi­ous year. From a pure sport­ing per­spect­ive, those at the match would be more temp­ted to return than those at the 2013 mod­el. St Kilda will want to start win­ning here though; they will not want a ‘War­ri­ors at Eden Park’ scenario.

On the day fol­low­ing the match there was a fam­ily day at the Basin Reserve, where the play­ers mingled with fans and chil­dren, as well as con­duct­ing basic drills, and on the Sunday there was a game between the New Zea­l­and Hawks and a South Pacific side. That capped off a week of all-round pro­mo­tion of the club, but more import­antly, the game in New Zea­l­and. Heav­ily involved in this was AFL New Zea­l­and, who are act­ively pro­mot­ing the code here after dec­ades of rel­at­ive inactivity.

The sport does have a his­tory in this coun­try. The first recor­ded game of Vic­tori­an Rules, as it was known then, was in Nel­son in 1868. (Nel­son also hos­ted the first game of rugby uni­on; pion­eers all round.) A Māori rugby team did a world tour in the 1880s, fin­ish­ing up in Aus­tralia and play­ing St Kilda, of all teams, in a series of Vic­tor­ia Rules matches. In the 1890s, there were 44 clubs in New Zea­l­and. The sport kept its hold in this coun­try up until the First World War, after which it mys­ter­i­ously vanished.

In the last five years that has turned around, due to a con­cer­ted push from AFL New Zea­l­and, and with more than a little help from head office across the Tas­man. The focus is on get­ting chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly those aged 7–12, involved in the sport. Import­antly, the sport is played over sum­mer, not just because those shorts and sing­lets are not made for a New Zea­l­and winter, but so that it is not in dir­ect com­pet­i­tion with the oth­er oval ball codes.

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 was 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, a brown and yel­low bag, and a brown and yel­low football.

As a res­ult of that ini­ti­at­ive, Shem Tatupu and Kurt Heath­er­ley are now on the roster at Hawthorn. Heath­er­ley was recently heav­ily involved in the pre-sea­son NAB Cup, play­ing every match for Hawthorn with dis­tinc­tion, and was on the fringes of being selec­ted in the Week 1 team for Hawthorn — no easy feat giv­en the depth of tal­ent in that side.

Nat­ur­ally, the primary club involved in tal­ent-spot­ting is now St Kilda, although the vast major­ity of clubs were involved in the latest com­bine, or tri­als in New Zea­l­and speak, to be held here. From that, Gio­vanni Moun­tain-Sil­bery, own­er of the coolest name in New Zea­l­and sport, got signed onto the roster at St Kilda.

Moun­tain-Sil­bery had no back­ground in the sport what­so­ever. He was a tal­en­ted school­boy from South Auck­land with a back­ground in ath­let­ics and rugby uni­on. How­ever, he excelled at all the rel­ev­ant drills, and is get­ting coached in the sport while fin­ish­ing his school­ing and tak­ing up his con­tract with St Kilda. He joined Joe Baker-Thomas from Pori­rua, who has a rugby and high-jump­ing background.

St Kilda’s latest sign­ing is Christ­ch­urch teen­ager Barclay Miller, who has a bas­ket­ball back­ground. The 16-year-old was in the Can­ter­bury Rams squad last year, so he is clearly an impress­ive ath­lete. The ties between St Kilda and New Zea­l­and are strength­en­ing, and the tal­ent pool is being tapped. It is a lot easi­er teach­ing a 16-year-old how to play a new sport than it is con­vert­ing a 29-year-old rugby league play­er into a rugby uni­on num­ber 10.

AFL New Zea­l­and is also sup­por­ted by the Aus­trali­an High Com­mis­sion, which has a par­tic­u­lar focus on the devel­op­ment and sup­port of indi­gen­ous sport in both coun­tries. In addi­tion to the Kiwikick kids, there are around 10,000 chil­dren at sec­ond­ary school level involved.


Aus­trali­an Breeze v NZ Kahus in the 2014 AFL Inter­na­tion­al Youth Girls Cup at Parrs Park, Oratia

Chief exec­ut­ive Rob Van­stam notes that there are now 80 people in AFL New Zea­l­and. Two of those are Aus­trali­an, but the rest are New Zeal­anders. The double bene­fits of the organ­isa­tion here are that it gen­er­ates a pool of loc­al coaches, and it helps those chil­dren being coached feel that they are not part of some inter­na­tion­al social experiment.

With this fledgling involve­ment of New Zeal­anders into the pro­fes­sion­al ranks, the cas­u­al fol­low­er will find it easi­er to identi­fy with clubs. The highest-pro­file play­er in that cat­egory cur­rently is Auck­land-born Shane Sav­age (although he did grow up in Melbourne).

So what is in store for the future of this fix­ture? As with oth­er sports, a shift to a day­time kick-off would have a huge pos­it­ive effect on crowd num­bers. Giv­en that AFL New Zealand’s primary push is at pre-teen chil­dren, a 7.45pm kick-off for a match that lasts three hours is not ideal.

That change to an earli­er start is exactly what is hap­pen­ing this year. Anzac Day 2015, the cen­ten­ary of the Gal­lipoli land­ing, sees a 1.10pm kick-off. As well as cre­at­ing a far bet­ter time of the day for Wel­ling­ton fans, it also provides a nice lead-in for view­ers being the Tas­man as it cur­tain-raises the tra­di­tion­al Colling­wood and Essen­don Anzac Day fix­ture at the Mel­bourne Crick­et Ground.

The real bonus of this schedul­ing is that it makes the event so much more access­ible for chil­dren. This ties in much more favour­ably with that AFL New Zea­l­and strategy of focus­ing devel­op­ment effort on those aged 7–12. Noth­ing drags a par­ent along to an event quite like an enthu­si­ast­ic child.


New Zea­l­and Hawks v South Pacific at Hutt Park in 2014

For the first time, St Kilda’s oppon­ent is anoth­er Mel­bourne club. Carlton, 16-time premi­er­ship win­ners and a found­a­tion mem­ber of the AFL, will bring their huge fol­low­ing with them.

Both sides will hold open train­ing ses­sions at West­pac Sta­di­um on the 24 April. That is a school day, and organ­isers are work­ing closely with primary schools to encour­age as many chil­dren as pos­sible to attend. It is hoped that the num­ber of people turn­ing up to these ses­sions will be in the thousands.

Also on that day, the Nation­al League Academy Tour­na­ment — involving three teams — is tak­ing place at Hutt Park, and there is a dis­play of AFL skills at the TSB Arena the pre­vi­ous even­ing. A youth team from South East Vic­tor­ia is also mak­ing the trip over the Tas­man to play a New Zea­l­and under-16 side, and the Basin Reserve will once again play host to an open day on the day after the match. A thou­sand people atten­ded that event last year, and that num­ber is expec­ted to grow.

As you can see, the AFL are think­ing 20 years ahead here. As they did with their expan­sion into Sydney and Bris­bane — a ven­ture most thought would nev­er suc­ceed — they are con­cen­trat­ing on estab­lish­ing the game at grass­roots level while hav­ing reg­u­lar elite guest matches. It is of note that even Adelaide and Perth, des­pite being AFL heart­land cit­ies, got per­man­ent fran­chises only in the 1990s.

It is a mod­el the AFL are famil­i­ar with, and the deep pock­ets in Mel­bourne will know how to invest, and can take a short-term hit if required. Should the dream of an AFL team based in New Zea­l­and become real­ity, it will be a care­fully planned intro­duc­tion. And as things stand at the moment, there is only one ground in the coun­try that could host such a venture.

Graeme Beasley

One of those rare people: a born and bred Wellingtonian. And enough of a Wellingtonian to know how to pronounce Majoribanks Street. Has a soft spot for the Makara wind farm, the south coast and the bucket fountain, but refuses to toot the horn in the Mt Victoria tunnel. Very familiar in handling the full range of emotions generated by supporting Wellington sports team. Works in IT.