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Opinion: New Zealand football – a personal perspective from across the Ditch

  • Sunday, July 01 2012 @ 02:52 am ACST
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Will McKenzie lives in Auckland, is a former President and General Manager of what is now AFL New Zealand, founded the International Australian Football Council and instigated the International Cup, which he still regularly attends.  In this article Will ponders the past, present and future of Australian football in New Zealand, with the inside knowledge of someone who has played a significant role in its recent history.


Being close to Australia, and with a long history in the game, many people look to New Zealand to see how football can develop outside Australia.  New Zealand football during the 1990s, a decade when I was heavily involved in the game, has been referred to from time to time on WFN including recently in a discussion thread which has prompted me to write to give a picture of New Zealand football in the 1990s from where I was standing, and some thoughts about current and future developments.  

Football of a predominantly Victorian variety was played in the colony of New Zealand from the late 1850s and was the only recognisable football code played in New Zealand until the first rugby match was played in 1870.  Despite rugby taking off like a scrub fire, football did reasonably well having clubs in most  parts of the colony by the turn of the 20th century when New Zealand declined an invitation to join the six other Australasian colonies in the forming of the Commonwealth of Australia.  New Zealand was a member of the 1905 and 1908 Australasian Football Councils, the equivalent of today’s AFL Commission, and the New Zealand team, wearing all black, competed in the 1908 Jubilee Australasian Football Carnival at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of large crowds, getting well beaten by Victoria and Tasmania but defeating New South Wales and Queensland to finish fourth out of the seven state/colony teams.  World War I crippled the sport here (as it did rugby union in Australia) and football in New Zealand did not survive the depression.  The game was revived in 1974, leagues were formed in in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and a league now operates in Hamilton as well.

In late 1990, at the end of my time as a student at the University of Canterbury, and with an understanding of football having lived in Geelong during the 70s and played a bit at school I wrote to AFL Chairman and CEO Ross Oakley to suggest that the AFL consider playing a match in New Zealand as the first part of a long term plan to ‘repopularise’ the game in New Zealand.  Ross responded very positively.  As there was no suitable venue in Christchurch I scoured various maps of various cities and eventually settled upon Western Springs Stadium, Auckland, which is a speedway venue.  However it is possible to lay turf over a dirt track and the Auckland City Council kindly agreed to lay 10,000 square metres of turf to produce a 150m by 90m playing surface. 

AFL Finance Manager Greg Durham took charge of the project and convinced Just Jeans Chairman Craig Kimberley to sponsor the match.  AFL Marketing Manager Grant Burgess made the other key arrangements and the Just Jeans Cup between St Kilda and Geelong was played at Western Springs Stadium on  5th October 1991 in front of a crowd of 8,000 interested Aucklanders who witnessed the Cats score two late goals to get across the line 12.11  to 10.10. The match was shown live in Australia and on delay in NZ.

Following the Just Jeans Cup, in continuation of what I was trying to do by asking the AFL to play in New Zealand, and later on behalf of the NZAFC, I stayed in touch with the AFL and Ed Biggs, General Manager of the National Australian Football Council, to keep them up to date with that was happening in New Zealand.  I forged relationships with broadcasters and liaised with Grant Burgess to try to expand pay television coverage of the AFL and to get the AFL on free-to-air television as I saw television coverage along with AFL matches as the key elements in repopularising the sport.  I regularly asked the AFL to consider playing another match in NZ but a lot was happening in the AFL in the early 1990s and playing in New Zealand again was not a priority at that stage.  

As we would need somewhere for the AFL to play if they did decide to play in NZ again, I kept my eyes and ears open for possible AFL venues.  In 1993 I approached the Auckland Regional Council, owners of Mt Smart Stadium, with a design and proposal for a redevelopment of the ground to accommodate a range of sports including Australian football.  They liked the concept and engaged me to prepare a proposal for the then recently set up Auckland Warriors to base themselves at Mt Smart which the Warriors accepted and the Warriors played their first match at the venue in 1995; there is still a possibility that Mt Smart could become available for AFL matches in the future.  I also kept in regular touch with the promoters of the Wellington stadium in the mid 1990s and encouraged them to make sure the stadium design could accommodate Australian football.  The Wellington stadium was going to be a rugby and cricket venue but was designed to be longer than it needs to be for cricket or rugby, which allows it to accommodate AFL matches.

Around the time of the Just Jeans Cup I was elected President of the Auckland AFL and a few years later of the New Zealand Australian Football Council.  The six club AAFL had been running since 1974 after previously thriving from the early 1890s until World War I.  The AAFL was (and is) a very good League thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of the players and coaches and the tireless work of administrators through the 70s and 80s such as Barry Rogers and Ken McKay who are both still on the scene today.  It was a great learning experience to be involved.  Highlights of the time were a series of riotous Best and Fairest functions at the Downtown Convention Centre and the introduction of reserve grade football.

The NZAFC had not operated for a number of years, however it had a proud history too and it was a pleasure to get it up and going again and to work with the people from the three member Leagues such as Mike O’Donnell and Warren Freer and committee members including Terry Carroll and John Carroll to get provincial football going again, and to begin to drive the game as a whole.  A notable event in that period was the trip of the New Zealand team, coached by Dean Page, to participate in the 1995 Arafura Games in Darwin in which Daryl Window had succeeded in having Australian football included.  We lost the final 16.10 - 8.7 to a very good Papua New Guinea team.  Captain Dave Oram, Anthony Hogan and Steve Gregory were selected in the World Team.

Also around this time former Essendon committee member Bryan Wells, General Manager of the Regent Hotel Stephen Lewis and Dean Page set up the AFL Supporter’s Club – Auckland which ran from 1992 through to 2006.  The Club held a function every month during the season attended by between 20 and 70 football minded people to drink beer, eat pies, watch football videos and talk.  The club also organised well attended Grand Final functions and an annual dinner which attracted up to 150 people and featured over the years guest speakers; Peter Hudson, Mike Williamson, Ross Oakley, Alan Schwab, Kevin Sheedy, Tom Hafey, Wayne Jackson, Ian Collins, Bob Skilton, Ron Barassi, Stan Alves, Sam Kekovich, Peter Knights and Rodney Eade.

As 1996 was the VFL/AFL centenary season I left the AFL alone from mid 1995 and asked everyone else in NZ footy to do the same.  In early 1996 I stood down from my AAFL and NZAFC positions to allow me to get on with other things, to the relief of my then girlfriend, now wife, Jackie, but I kept a regular eye on what was happening with potential AFL venues and potential AFL broadcasters as doing so had the potential to produce tremendous benefits for the game.

With 1996 successfully completed the AFL did pay some attention to New Zealand and sent AFL Talent Manager Kevin Sheehan on a fact finding tour in early 1997.  Kevin recommended that the AFL set up a football development foundation in New Zealand.  AFL CEO Wayne Jackson and AFL Football Operations Manger Ian Collins did their own tour of the country in mid-1997 visiting Auckland and Wellington.  The AFL decided to set up the development foundation, initially for three years from November 1997, and to play preseason Ansett Cup matches at the Basin Reserve Wellington in early 1998, and at the Wellington stadium in early 2000, a stadium which was in the final planning stages in mid 1997 - construction started in early 1998.  NZAFC President Rob Greenwood signed the agreement and I was offered the job of General Manager of the foundation, which I was pleased to accept.

The development foundation plan, which Australian Football Development Foundation General Manager Ed Biggs and I finalised in late 1997, was:

1 - AFL to play matches in New Zealand, NZAFL to do what it can to help them succeed.
2 – Work with AFL marketing on pay and free-to-air television coverage.
3 - Run development programs with specific targets for the various stages of the player pathway and help local club football develop.

With inspired work from Wellington marketer John Dow a near capacity 8,000 spectators were attracted to the Melbourne v Sydney Basin Reserve match in February 1998.  After prolonged encouragement from Grant Burgess, and with the confidence generated from the successful Basin Reserve match, John Spencer, General Manager of Prime Television, made the bold decision to broadcast a full AFL match live and free to air every Saturday afternoon for the 1998 finals and every Saturday afternoon of the 1999 and 2000 seasons, which attracted up to 40,000 viewers per week.  Grant also put a lot of effort into encouraging Sky to increase their AFL coverage and for a few years Sky showed two and often three live AFL matches per week.  In January 2000 a crowd of 14,000 attended the Hawthorn v Western Bulldogs match at the then new Wellington stadium.

The development foundation, which was a sub section of NZAFC, had a separate board made up of appointees from the ranks of business leaders and the local football scene including current WFN correspondent Rod Shaw.  The board met for the first time in the week of the February 1998 Basin Reserve AFL match.  The Chairman was Graeme Plum, a really good guy who set up Burger King in NZ; Graeme resigned from the board in 1999 as he was returning to Melbourne.  Sadly Graeme passed away in 2009.  The foundation board decided that they should become the board of NZAFC, to which the AFL and the NZAFC membership agreed, so a new constitution was drawn up and adopted which changed the name of the organisation to New Zealand AFL Inc., prescribed that the AFL would appoint four of the seven board members, and the foundation board became the NZAFL board.

The development programs went well.  NZAFL Development Manager Ian Francis had Kiwikick/Auskick accepted as an official Kiwisport to be played in primary schools and put in place programs in school, after school and at the weekend for children from 5 through to 18.  The healthy crop of players produced gave local club footy a boost and a group of them went on to form the core of the 2005 International Cup winning team.

After putting a big effort into football during much of the 1990s I had done just about as much as I could so didn’t seek to renew my contract and finished as GM of NZAFL at the end of October 2000.

In 2011 I made an effort to get the AFL on free-to-air television as there had been no such coverage since 2000.  Jim Blackman, CEO of Stratos/Triangle Television, was extremely receptive and Stratos showed an AFL match on replay every Sunday night at 7pm from mid August to mid December 2011, and AFL match coverage started again this year from round 12 on Triangle at 9pm Sunday nights.  In addition Triangle showed the Local Footy Show from June to September 2011 and the show, an excellent watch, is back on Triangle again this year.  Stratos was a nationwide station which has stopped broadcasting.  Triangle broadcasts in Auckland only.  There is a good chance that nationwide AFL coverage will return in the coming years.

Given New Zealand’s long history in the game outlined above, its proximity to Australia, the closeness of our economies, the constant flow of people in both directions and the availability of a suitable stadium, it does seem a reasonable proposition that New Zealand be on the list of AFL Premiership venues at some stage.  It would be sensational for the game here, and good for football in Australia, if the AFL does fixture a home and away match to be played in New Zealand.  If the lead up goes well 20,000 plus spectators could be attracted to the 34,500 seat Wellington stadium for the first AFL Premiership match outside Australia.   At the moment there are no suitable AFL Premiership venues in Auckland or Christchurch but that could change in the next few years.  

The period 1998 to 2000 showed that if successful AFL matches are played in New Zealand and the game is covered well on free-to-air television and pay television, football can achieve a good public profile and interest in football in New Zealand will increase.

If the AFL were to decide to turn greater attention to New Zealand it could be confident that if the game receives good coverage on free-to-air and pay television, and regular (not necessarily every year) successful AFL matches are played, that interest in the sport amongst the population at large would increase steadily, and if that were maintained for 20 years or so a significant following of the AFL, and the game, would be established in New Zealand.  

Development programs are happening, however, as was done in New South Wales and Queensland, public awareness and following of the AFL, the “tip of the iceberg”, can be built more quickly than the multi generational job of constructing the iceberg below the waterline.

St Kilda played in the first AFL exhibition match in New Zealand in 1991; it would be great to see the Saints back playing in New Zealand in the first AFL Premiership match outside Australia.

Will McKenzie