AFL club St Kilda have signed a New Zealander who took up the sport only a month ago and whose brother is tied to Super Rugby club the Hurricanes.
Joe Baker-Thomas, 16, is the first Kiwi the Saints – who played their first home game in Wellington on Thursday night – have secured under the international scholarship scheme but they expect several more to follow in the next year or two.
Saints head of football Chris Pelchen says the club are expanding their recruiting team in NZ to have four scouts in the country.
Baker-Thomas, whose older brother Tepasu is in the Hurricanes’ development squad, also comes from a rugby union background.
But Pelchen said Saints recruiters needed to watch the 193cm, 87kg player for just 15 minutes in the past week’s NZ under-18 Australian Football championships to spot something special.
“His athleticism and attitude towards learning the new game was outstanding,” Pelchen said on Friday.
Baker-Thomas will remain living in Wellington this year while he completes high school but make occasional trips to Melbourne to work with Saints staff and the club’s development coaches will visit NZ to work with him.
If things go to plan, he will move to Melbourne for the second year of his initial two-year deal.
Baker-Thomas said while he grew up playing rugby, he liked the fact that the Australian code demanded a wider range of skills.
But he said had a similar opportunity in rugby union been offered first he probably would have taken that.
“If it came at the same time I wouldn’t really know,” Baker-Thomas said.
“If it was rugby before this got introduced to me then probably yeah.”