Kiwi AFL player explores radical return to rugby with Rebels

Super Rugby
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Kurt Heatherley - the first AFL player to be recruited out of New Zealand - is exploring a radical switch back to rugby in a two-week trial with the Melbourne Rebels.

The 23-year-old defender was delisted by Hawthorn this year after five games in five seasons, but said last month he was still “praying for an opportunity” in the AFL.

Heatherley was plucked out of New Zealand by Hawthorn as an elite 14-year-old basketballer, and he honed his AFL skills by finishing his schooling at Melbourne’s Caulfield Grammar.

Ironically, in his bid to crack it in the AFL, he spent time training with former Hawthorn ruckman Mick Byrne, who is now the Wallabies' skills coach.

Rugby was not his main game growing up but Heatherley represented Waikato’s U14s before moving to Australia as part of an experimental deal with the Hawks.

The Rebels had been in talks with Heatherley in recent months and ultimately offered him a two-week trial with the team that started on Monday.

Kurt Heatherley at Rebels training. Photo: Melbourne RebelsI played through the ranks back in New Zealand, through U14s, U16s and whatnot," he said.

"A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the coach and a couple of other guys and they said come down for a trial for the next couple of weeks, so I thought, "great opportunity", thought I'd just come down and give it a go."

Heatherley is still looking at the prospect of signing in the VFL but said he was keen to keep his options open when it came to his sporting future.

“I still love AFL, it's just at the moment I want to keep all my options open and I thought I'd just come down here, give it a try,” he aid.

“Just going to come down here, in the next two weeks, pretty much every day, so we'll just see how we go for the next two weeks, do everything with all the boys and then we'll see what happens at the end of it.”

Rebels professional rugby general manager Nick Ryan said they’d had informal conversations with Heatherley and were keen to have a closer look at him.

“We had some conversations things but it was never beyond basic things as he was a contracted Hawthorn player, but if the opportunity came up, we were open to giving him a look here," Ryan said.

“He’s taken up on that starting yesterday - good guy, good athlete, pretty good fundamentals, he needs to polish up a bit of rugby stuff, it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Kurt Heatherley at the 2012 draft combine. Photo: Getty ImagesThe 193cm, 89kg Heatherley  has plenty of pace for a big man, finishing second in the 20m sprint in his draft combine year with a time of 2.84 seconds.

Contact will be the biggest adjustment for him, Ryan said.

“His rugby pedigree is not insignificant and he has a pretty good understanding of the game,” he said.

“We’re just reorienting him with the contact side and getting him back to passing not handballing.

“He’s got a foundation in the game which gave him a bit of confidence.”

Heatherley played most of his rugby as an outside back and that’s where Ryan said he would be considered if they found some promise in him.

His brother Jason is a decent sevens player back in New Zealand, and won the Bay of Plenty's best men's sevens player in 2016.

“That’s probably a pretty logical place for him to start and relearn the start, that’s where we’ll train him and see how he goes but he’s certainly got the raw attributes to make a transition, whether that’s long-term or not,” he said.

“He has raw materials with his height, running capacity and his kicking and catching skills too.”

Heatherley is one of a number of new faces around the Rebels camp in preseason, with a host of local players training part-time with the main side as Melbourne looks to finalise its 2019 wider training squad.