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AFL Vanuatu keen to grow in soccer mad nation, and push for International Cup place

But undeterred, a small band of Aussie Rules disciples have soldiered on, and spread their message via social media and through on-line training programmes.

And with the 2023 International Cup in Melbourne put back to 2024, the hope is by then Vanuatu might have a team ready to take part.

Nancy Patterson is AFL Vanuatu's Programme Director, and while she's the first to admit that soccer is the dominant force, she says interest in AFL is growing.

"Working as a development officer introducing football in different communities I have seen lots of people are showing interest, especially the kids. My major job is visiting the schools. So I found out that lots of kids are very interested in this game, we just need to work more and help them to know the basic skills especially," Patterson told Pacific Beat.

Working alongside Nancy Patterson, but at a distance because of the Covid-19 outbreak in Vanuatu, is Jarrod Landells, a volunteer sponsored by the Australian government who works as AFL Vanuatu's Communications, Media and Policy Liaison Officer.

"I think (AFL) as a niche sport like volleyball, table tennis, judo, rowing, they've all seen that the playing field is probably not level, but there are some really important ways that they can achieve some goals that they set themselves, whether it be an Olympic level or regional level or community based level," said Landells.

And AFL Vanuatu has had some success, but Nancy Patterson says progress is difficult without the right ground to play on.

"We have competitions going on, with six men's teams and five women's team, but the challenge we face is (not having) a footy oval that we should have, to get more people coming in and more teams to participate."

Taking cricket in the country as their inspiration, AFL Vanuatu's strategy extends well beyond getting good teams on to the field, and the hope is the game can contribute to the reduction of non-communicable disease rates in key population groups, and the reduction of domestic violence is also a target.

"We're committed to helping spread the message of reducing and hopefully eliminating gender based violence through fostering some relationships with men and women, boys and girls who are playing footy all on the same field," said Jarrod Landells.

"And the other thing is just building some really strong community leadership through sport, because there are a lot of young people in Vanuatu who aspire to bigger and better things. And a lot of their heroes and their role models are international stars of sport. And we think that we can get some really great outcomes if we do the same thing on a more localized and smaller scale level of getting those young people to see themselves as the role models of the future for their community."

The good news for AFL Vanuatu is that Covid-19 restrictions on team sports have been lifted, and so the on-field action can resume.

Long term they harbour ambitions of entering a team in the 2023 International Cup which will now be played in Melbourne in 2024.

Jarrod Landells says a year's delay will actually help Vanuatu by giving them more time to catch up with the leading Pacific nations, Fiji, Nauru and the reigning International Cup champions, Papua New Guinea.

"We had some preliminary discussions within AFL Vanuatu and our partners about either 2023 or 2026 being a soft target for reaching the International Cup and look who knows we have some very good players in the men's and women's senior teams," he said.

"Some of them have played in Australia before, so they've got some good experience with tactical knowledge and training techniques. And I'd be lying if I said that I wouldn't want to strive for the next International Cup, but it's a very competitive field and not everyone gets the chance to make it, so we'll try our best."