THE prospect of the first AFL home-and-away game played outside Australia could become a reality as early as next season, with St Kilda pushing to play up to four games a season in New Zealand.
The Saturday Age understands that the Saints have been exploring the possibility of playing games for premiership points at Wellington's Westpac Stadium. St Kilda's initial hope is for the AFL to fixture at least one home game there in 2013 - or 2014 at the outside.
AFL chief Andrew Demetriou confirmed yesterday that St Kilda had met the league's acting game development chief, Andrew Dillon, regarding the New Zealand push, which is understood to have been heavily driven by the Saints' new head of football, Chris Pelchen.
Demetriou said the subject had been raised but not significantly explored at a recent meeting of AFL executives. The game's recently completed five-year strategic plan includes an international platform and the desire to contest home-and-away games outside Australia within that period.
Pelchen was accompanied by St Kilda chief executive Michael Nettlefold and chief operating officer Terry Dillon in a trip to New Zealand in January during the tour by the Australian rules AIS under-18 team. The key Saints trio is believed to have held a series of meetings with Wellington-based stakeholders and toured the stadium.
St Kilda released a statement regarding its New Zealand plans after being contacted yesterday by The Saturday Age. The club admitted it had undertaken ''preliminary'' discussions with the AFL. ''The Saints also see an opportunity to build player talent pathways for local talent to play AFL and potentially play games for premiership points in Wellington,'' Nettlefold said, adding that no official agreement regarding fixturing had taken place.
The New Zealand push would provide one solution to St Kilda's financial woes, partly brought about by its unsatisfactory arrangement with Etihad Stadium. Under the AFL's model for selling home games, the prospect of four home games in Wellington could reap the club an extra $1.5 million a year.
The club is also trying to find new sponsors, having lost key corporate support over the past 18 months.
Pelchen, who joined the Saints late last season, worked hard to promote a presence in New Zealand during his previous recruiting role at Hawthorn.
A New Zealand scholarship scheme was established in the name of Kiwi-born Trent Croad, with the Hawks also launching the junior Auskick-style program Kiwikick. Three of the four New Zealand Hawthorn scholarship holders were chosen by Pelchen, one of whom - Kurt Heatherley - has moved to Melbourne and is doing his VCE at Caulfield Grammar.
While Hawthorn has continued to push both its community and scholarship development across the Tasman, the Hawks have not approached the AFL regarding the prospect of playing matches for premiership points in New Zealand, having signed a new agreement with the Tasmanian government in late 2010.