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Saints make call on Kiwi kid

Jennifer Phelan  April 26, 2013 12:45 PM

dal-santo-joe-baker.jpg

Nick Dal Santo with teenager Joe Baker-Thomas who is the Saints' first New Zealand scholarship holder

Ultimately, unless you start prospecting you don't find the golden nugget
IT TOOK the St Kilda 15 minutes to identify the raw athletic talent of New Zealand teenager Joe Baker-Thomas, the club's first New Zealand scholarship player.

Baker-Thomas, 16, joined the Saints on Thursday after recruiting staff saw him play at New Zealand's under 18 championships last week.

And the club says it plan to sign more potential players like Baker-Thomas to international scholarships over the next two years.

At 193cm and 87kg with a body shape "well suited" to Australian Rules, Baker-Thomas also possesses what St Kilda head of football Chris Pelchen identifies as the "basic elements you look for in a footballer".

He's only been playing the game for a month after being introduced to it at school, where he is studying year 13 – New Zealand's equivalent to year 12.

Pelchen said the Saints wanted to add more athletes of a similar ilk to their scholarship list after identifying New Zealand as potential recruiting goldmine.

"Our plan here [is] to have multiple scholarship players over the next 12 to 24 months," Pelchen said.

"We've got a recruiting network that is currently being established and a couple of guys already working for us here, and three to four recruiting staff, all part time, working specifically for the Saints.

"We certainly anticipate having multiple scholarship players and in my personal opinion, I believe New Zealand has a great part to play in developing a draft pool going forward."

Pelchen said teenagers such as Baker-Thomas who possessed nothing more than athletic prowess and potential weren't expected to take a "giant leap" in one year.

But, as Hawthorn has found with Kiwis Kurt Heatherley and Shem Tatupu, who Pelchen assessed as being ready to play in the next two years, development can come with patience.

"It took us about 15 minutes to decide that this boy's got some potential," Pelchen said.

"The boys over here do see this as an opportunity.

"All you want to see is on-going and constant development. You don't expect them to take a giant leap in one year.

"These guys are very comfortable with running into each other and having body contact.

"When you see Joe play, you'll identify that very quickly."

Baker-Thomas' older brother is a member of Wellington's super rugby team - the Hurricanes - development squad, and his own sporting background is wide and varied.

He has played both codes of rugby, basketball, netball and done athletics, and has proven he is not afraid to be physical.

While the immediate plan is for him to remain in his hometown of Wellington, where he lives in Porirua, he will make several trips to Australia to see the club's development coaches over the next 12 months.

International scholarship holders are signed for a minimum of two years, and Baker-Thomas will be visited by coaching staff throughout the next 24 months as he plays in the local competition, which runs from September to December.

He attended Thursday night's game and called it a "mean sport", but one he believes Wellington would embrace.

"More people will go," Baker-Thomas said.

"Especially because I'm the first one to get signed to St Kilda, there will be a lot of family support, which should be good.

"It could catch on the way it's going. Everyone's supporting the game."

Pelchen said bigger players were more likely to benefit from the program, as those above 190cm generally need to kick the ball less, but the Saints would look at all types in an attempt to unearth a rare gem.

"It's very similar to mining for gold," he said.

"Ultimately, unless you start prospecting you don't find the golden nugget."

Jennifer Phelan is a reporter for AFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @AFL_JenPhelan.