Swanning Around in Wellington
Friday, April 26 2013 @ 03:30 am ACST
Contributed by: Rod Shaw
Rod Shaw is World Footy News' New Zealand correspondent but now based in Victoria. In a bold move for a volunteers-based website we sent him to Wellington for the first AFL regular season match to be played outside of Australia. Rod has had a long involvement in footy in Wellington and was New Zealand's senior coach at the 2002 International Cup.
Last night saw the historic first game for Premiership points played in Wellington. The Sydney Swans went on to win in a hard fought game over the St Kilda Saints. Brodie Murdoch on debut for the Saints kicked long into the forward line and Justin Koschitzke, playing his first game for the year, clutched a strong grab and converted. He has the honour of scoring the first goal on an international field in an AFL game that really matters (i.e. not pre-season or exhibition).
For me it was a coming home in a sense, having spent over ten years in Wellington I had the good fortune to participate in all three pre-season games in various ways held between 1998-2002.
Without a doubt this game has been set up for success far better in so many ways than the earlier pre-season games.
With the addition of the Gold Coast Suns and the Great Western Sydney Giants the drafts were compromised severely affecting the other 16 AFL Clubs from accessing the best young talent. Visionary clubs such as Hawthorn stepped out to get players of a suitable standard from elsewhere. They set up a Memorandum of Understanding with AFLNZ and the AFL to set up talent identification programs such as the Hawks Cup that also helps NZ football to build a base of players and real awareness of the game.
Meanwhile St Kilda used a different approach. They have held a couple of community camps in NZ and once they got permission to play the Anzac game they have drip fed a variety of players, coaches and administrators to Wellington in the months preceding the game. This has helped them gain great media coverage. I have been assured by my many friends and contacts in Wellington that this game has been a source of discussion in many workplaces around and about the capital.
In the week preceding the game the amount of coverage in all forms of media has been sensational and is a direct result of the preparation put into the game by all the stakeholders inclusive of the AFL, St Kilda, Sydney, AFLNZ and not least the Wellington City Council.
The Wellington City Council have over the past 15 years been proactive in bringing AFL to NZ. They have worked with the business community to finally go from wish to reality. New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key has gone so far as to say last night that given that NZ has representative teams in the Australian Basketball, Soccer and Rugby League competitions that he sees no reason that they shouldn't have one in the AFL as well.
By the time St Kilda held up their run through stating "Thank You Wellington, New Zealand" you could tell they were the crowd favourites.
Many would say that the crowd of 22,564 was not that great. Having spoken with many locals what needs to be kept in mind is that they feel that the Hurricanes and the Phoenix have not drawn a crowd anywhere near this size for over 3 years.
With the Anzac Ceremony including maori versions of what was said the game had a unique sense. I think on Anzac Day many Australians forget that there is no Anzac without remembering the Kiwis and this was soon apparent with the singing of the National Anthems. A modest version of Advance Australia Fair was followed by a spine tingling version of God Defend New Zealand in maori and English which was a clear sign of the overwhelming number of Kiwis in the crowd.
It would be easy to assume that the crowd was mainly expatrates or visiting Aussies of which there are said to have been 4500. I find that very easy to believe having travelled over myself and wandered through the streets of Wellington.
However the crowd was drawn from far further afield than Wellington or Australia. There is no doubt that the AFLNZ junior development programs would have contributed many families to the event but one lady I spoke to came from rural Masterton as she had seen a game on TV some years ago that had caught her attention, another couple I sat next to had travelled down 5 hours from the Bay of Plenty resplendent in their Brisbane Lions gear because they had lived in Brisbane for 5 years. These are just a couple of examples to support the idea that games in NZ will draw a crowd regardless of the distance.
A thing to remember in considering whether AFL games are really a long term addition to the NZ sporting landscape is that NZ has many connections with Australia and as a result already has awareness of the game, and in many cases some attraction to it.
So suggestions for future games-
- Keep the pricing sharp. I heard many times that the entry price was attractive for the average person and family to attend.
- The AFL and involved Clubs need to keep drip feeding interest stories into the market and find the identities to support a connection with the game - the young fellers trailblazing as international rookies or the established players with NZ heritage.
- Stakeholders working with AFL NZ to continue to support the great grass roots programs they are delivering and the talent identification progams they are running.
- The game needs to start earlier. The curtain raiser which I will write on in a further article was played between the NZ Hawks and the South Pacific Under 18 academy. Certainly this game was played man on man rather than with the zones familiar to AFL followers and the dourness that usually is the lot of a Swans/Saints game. But there was more clean football and was a far better spectacle than what resulted in the main game with players slipping regularly and players struggling to handle the ball effectively in damp conditions.
- Another reason for starting earlier is that the AFL should want families to attend. With a game starting at nearly 8pm and finishing around 11 o'clock this is really not feasible. Two friends of mine who played in the Wellington competition and for NZ had to take their sons home at half time. This is not going to help in convincing the kids to really follow AFL.
Overall however it was a marvellous experience and kudos to all involved. More reports to follow.