AFL’s Wellington foray failed – so how does the game survive here?

The New Zealand Hawks are one game away from their first International Cup title since 2005. Who are the Hawks, and what does this mean for the future of ‘Australia’s game’ in this country? Alex Braae explains.

Seconds remained in the first quarter of the most important game of AFL the New Zealand Hawks had played in a decade. It was effectively the elimination final of the International Cup – a quasi World Cup event that bars Australians from playing – and they were trailing powerhouse Ireland. The Hawks, hot on attack, booted a long ball into the 50 metre circle. Barclay Miller, a Christchurch teenager on scholarship with the St Kilda Saints, soared above the pack and dragged down a mark in front of goal. The commentator on the live stream boomed his approval at a big play to set up an easy goal. Miller steadied himself, jogged in, and smashed it straight into the post. He wanted six points. He got one.

Want to play Australia’s game?

When the Saints signed a 2012 deal with the Wellington City Council to bring games to the capital, it was hailed as a new dawn for the sport in New Zealand. AFL bosses eyed an expansion market of 4 million people; hotels and bars imagined packed houses of Australian tourists. The deal was for five years.

Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes at Westpac Stadium, 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the first year, there wasn’t a spare bed in the city. 22,500 fans brought rare colour and life to Westpac Stadium. The Saints lost narrowly to the reigning champion Sydney Swans. A year later, the Saints lost again, in front of 9,000 fewer fans. Another drop in attendance came in 2015, and a bailout clause in the deal was hastily discovered. The Saints skipped town, with barely a trace of ever being there at all.

It’s not that they weren’t trying. A few times a year Saints players would fly in, visit a few schools, do a few media ops, and fly out again. The goal was to build a relationship with the sporting public of Aotearoa. But an old and storied footy club was confronted by something far more difficult than the intense cross-town rivalries they face in Melbourne: indifference.

It quickly became clear that there was no way to impose a uniquely Australian sporting culture on the New Zealand public. Players accustomed to being mobbed found themselves sheepishly asking rows of baffled kids if anyone wanted to play ‘Australia’s game’. It made a tough sell even tougher. Most visits barely raised a ripple, such as the training camp in Queenstown that was pleasing only to St Kilda’s football department and tourism bosses. The pictures had nice mountains in the background.

The International Game

As the battle raged at Melbourne’s Ransford Oval, an Irish man-mountain was conjuring up a nightmare scenario for the Hawks. 203cm tall Padraig Lucey – star of an AFL talent scouting show called The Recruit – was banging in goals at will. Every time the Hawks built momentum, he would find a way to reel them back in. So tight was the International Cup ladder, that as the lead changed Ireland jumped from 4th place to 1st on the ladder. At stake was a chance to play the final on the sport’s most sacred turf, the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The reaction to the International Cup from Australians ranges from patriotic love for anyone who touches a Sherrin, to paternalistic encouragement, to derision at the standard. It’s the pinnacle of international competition in a sport that can barely conceive of the concept. The only other attempts are the bizarre hybrid games played in a split format between AFL and Gaelic Football.

The Men’s and Women’s team captains at the 2017 AFL International Cup launch. (Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Beyond Australia’s coasts, the world is divided into commercial markets to unlock, like China and India, and sources of raw athletic talent, like the College Basketball system in the USA. St Kilda have stayed involved with the High Performance programme, to get first dibs on any potential stars. A few New Zealanders fit that mould too, teenagers spotted at Combines and signed to scholarships. In a decade, a grand total of one Kiwi scholarship holder has played at the top level.

AFL New Zealand run a tight ship. Deep in the bowels of Sports House at Albany Stadium, a small team has spent much of the last decade stuffed into two small rooms. They were recently upgraded to a bigger office. It has a window. Despite the setbacks, they remain relentlessly positive, and they have reason to be. They’ve survived and thrived on a budget that would have crippled other sports.

A top level team being permanently based in New Zealand is almost inconceivable. Tasmania, Darwin or the Sunshine Coast are more realistic prospects for future expansion. The ongoing saga of Auckland’s stadium use, and the redevelopment of Western Springs as a cricket ground, is the only thing keeping the door ajar. When Speedway’s lease ends in 2019, the plan is to play a few games a year in Auckland. It’s an overwhelmingly better option – a more realistic new dawn at least.

Even if the games never return, it won’t matter for AFL New Zealand’s strategy. St Kilda’s presence made little difference to their core business, the so-called AFL Kiwikick programme. Tens of thousands of kids do school programmes, delivered with the tacit understanding that the participants don’t necessarily need to care about AFL. They’re funded by KiwiSport mostly on the grounds that they’re very good at getting kids to run around outside. There’s leagues, and even a centralised competition called the Premiership played in late summer. Painstakingly slowly, a game is being built up. But it bears little resemblance to the Australian game.

For starters, money is non-existent. Football clubs in Victoria, South and Western Australia, and Tasmania, remain vitally important community institutions. Club games in New Zealand generally have more players than spectators, and teams often find themselves short on numbers. Some train hard and play to win. Others become de-facto expat drinking societies. AFL New Zealand tends to wash their hands of the latter. The season is deliberately timed to not offend the rugby gods, and games are played on Sunday. Australians who come over sometimes wonder why they can’t just shift the games to a more convenient Saturday. Unfortunately, everyone’s busy.

Even the style of play can be radically different, as touring teams from Australia discover to their horror. Especially at Junior levels, New Zealand teams play a hard running, brutally physical game. Slick, well drilled tourists limp off the field, battered and bruised, despite generally winning by hundred-point margins.

Ty Smith reaches for the Sherrin (Photo: Jun Tanlayco)

Who are the Hawks?

The Irish powered ahead at the start of the fourth quarter with two quick goals. The Hawks seemed to have no answer to Padraig Lucey. New Zealand had won three from three so far, but fears were mounting that a repeat of 2014, when the Hawks crumbled in the face of a spot in the final, was about to happen. For those around the Ransford Oval boundary, and the small but rabidly dedicated support base back home, heartbreak beckoned. A few more goals against and the Hawks were out.

It’s not cheap to play for the New Zealand Hawks. Players take leave from work, save up every spare cent and fundraise to tour. They have to navigate the strictly enforced ‘no dickheads’ policy. Tours are regimented, with ice baths and matching tracksuits. “They haven’t had a drop of alcohol all week,” noted the Australian commentator during the Irish match, with a tone of both admiration and mild concern.

Some Hawks took up the game as adults, rising to bigger challenges after bossing the lowly club scene. Others were unearthed after turning up to High School tournaments on a whim. Given the commitment they have to make, they live ludicrously far from the sporting spotlight. Day jobs range from insurance underwriters to personal trainers. A few get jobs with AFL New Zealand. Many fit AFL around other sports. Regardless of other commitments, they’ve been building up to this International Cup all year, and some for far longer.

Ransford Oval erupts

Ireland were on their way to the MCG, grimly hanging on to a two point lead. Less than a minute remained. New Zealand’s Will Gregson took a mark on the wing, and wheeled around with only one option ahead of him. He wound up and punted deep into Irish territory. The pack converged, limbs flying everywhere. The ball went loose in the confusion, and the umpire sprinted into the middle, waving his arms frantically. A free kick was paid out to the Hawks. The siren sounded. The Hawks player who had been fouled picked up the ball, and slowly started walking back to his spot to take the final kick of the match. It was Barclay Miller.

Now it was the Irish facing elimination. A miss, and they’d carry momentum into the final against the Hawks. A goal, and Papua New Guinea would steal their place. The men in green screamed and windmilled their arms at Miller in a last-ditch effort to distract him. He trotted forward, flicked his boot and roared in delight, as it sailed through the middle. Black singlets swarmed him, a huge rolling maul of joy. The Hawks were unbeaten. They were going to the big dance. They could win the whole damn thing.

A victory in Saturday’s final would simultaneously mean nothing and everything. There won’t be lucrative endorsement deals for the players. They won’t win a Halberg. There will be no parade. But the effects of a win would ripple out far beyond the footy community. It wouldn’t matter so much that few here can name a single Australian player. New Zealanders adore international sporting success, and everyone in the vast networks of each player would know a champion. That alone would make the code seem like far more than just Australia’s game.

The International Cup final between the New Zealand Hawks and Papua New Guinea Mosquitos will be live streamed on the AFLIC17 YouTube channel. First bounce is at 1:15pm, Saturday 16th August.

Three players to watch

Andriu Sucu: Imposing and moustachioed backman from the North Shore, who has played Rugby League for Northcote.

Andriu Sucu (Photo: Jun Tanlayco)

Te Kopa Tipene-Thomas: Whiplike runner from the Bay of Islands. Plays like a cornered wildcat, and is exceptionally dangerous with ball in hand.

Te Kopa Tipene-Thomas (Photo: Jun Tanlayco)

Andrew Howison: Vastly experienced captain, and one of a core of players returning for a third International Cup. Clear minded and tough on the ball.

Andrew Howison (Photo: Jun Tanlayco)

Alex Braae is a radio producer and journalist in Auckland. He worked for AFL New Zealand between 2013 and 2015, and is still trying to figure out which Australian team to support.

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