ANZACS ABROAD: A Q&A with Greg Draper - the Kiwi Wizard of Welsh Football

Since joining The New Saints, the one-cap New Zealand international has scored 84 goals in 152 games.

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May 1 2017, 10:00pm

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When most Kiwis think of sport in Wales, they think of rugby union.

They think of the infamous upset of the 1905 All Blacks, of the choirs at the old Cardiff Arms Park, of Graham Henry and Steve Hansen's impact on the code there – and the 12 Welshmen who'll head to New Zealand for the British & Irish Lions tour next month.

Yet while rugby still holds the high ground in the Valleys, football is starting to make a decide push. Swansea City has played in the English Premier League since 2011, Cardiff's Gareth Bale is a star at Real Madrid – and the Welsh national team made the semifinals at the Euros in France last year.

In the Welsh Premier League itself, a Kiwi is one of the biggest stars.

Greg Draper, a one-cap New Zealand international, has just finished his sixth full season for Welsh club The New Saints. During that time, the 27-year-old forward has scored an incredible 84 goals in 152 games.

The New Saints – which are based in Oswestry - are one of those footballing oddities in that they are club is actually based in another nation. Oswestry is six kilometres inside the English side of the border.

Despite that, they've easily been the league's most dominant side, winning the comp each of the six seasons Draper has been involved - and an additional four since it was formed from combined Oswestry Town FC (England) and Liansantffraid FC (Wales) in 2003.

Earlier this season, The New Saints cracked a massive European football record when they won their 27th straight league game - beating a record held by the legendary Ajax Amsterdam side of 1971/1972.

Playing in the Welsh Premier League sees Draper play against some true footballing outposts, like Bala Town, Aberystwyth Town and Gap Connah's Quay, while yearly Champions League early round qualification sees him travel to ties against clubs in the Faroe Islands - "a place I never want to go back to," he says - Macedonia, Hungary and San Marino.

Draper can claim being the only Kiwi in the wider Champions League qualifers over the last few years, and will, almost certainly, be the only one next season as well.

Draper's has certainly had a footballing life he wouldn't have expected he'd be living, when he picked up his first professional contract for the Wellington Phoenix, in 2007.

Born in the Somerset town of Chard, Draper moved to Christchurch with his family aged 12 where his talents saw him eventually make the New Zealand Under-20s, 2008 Beijing Olympics team – and see him play for the All Whites, against Fiji, in 2008. The move to The New Saints came in 2011, after a year at English semi-pro side Basingstoke.

In Beijing, Draper would share the field with players like Ronaldinho, Thiago Silva, Lucas and Vincent Kompany.

That kind of footballer doesn't get onto the paddock much in Wales, but Draper isn't bothered. When I spoke to the affable Christchurch Pom, he found a chilled bloke whose enjoyable life - he's a new father to a one-year-old daughter - and football, literally, on the borderline.

Gidday, Greg. You've just re-signed with The New Saints for two more years. Are you glad to ensure your near future as a footballer is all lined up?

"I did my travelling when I was younger, playing here, there and everywhere. I played at the Phoenix, went to Australia, back to Wellington and over to England. I've done by year-to-year moving around, so it's been nice to settle down in one place and make a nice little family home now. I can settle down for two years, and we'll worry about what happens after that."

You didn't start playing football until you were 10, only a couple of years before you moved out to New Zealand. Reflecting back now, was that move good for your career as a footballer?

"I don't think where I am today if my Mum and Dad didn't move me to New Zealand. I know, at the time when I was 12, I kicked off at Mum and Dad moving out there. I'd just started secondary school, made all these new friends and was comfortable. It was daunting, but without moving to New Zealand, I wouldn't be where I am today.

"I wouldn't have had the opportunities I had, like going to the Under-20 World Cup with New Zealand and the Olympics. Within a few months of moving over to New Zealand, I was playing for Canterbury, so it moved pretty quickly really."

The New Saints offered you a contract in 2011 - and you've been there ever since. Why did you decide to play in the Welsh Premier League?

"It was the chance to play European football really, and I knew they were full-time too. Basingstoke was only part-time. You know: trainings on Tuesdays and Thursdays and games on Saturdays.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd even heard of [The New Saints] at the time. Once I started looking into them, saw they'd been playing in Champions League qualifiers and some of the teams that'd played against, it was a big plus. I wanted some of that, really."

It goes without saying, but football is not the biggest sport in Wales. What is it like to play in the Welsh Premier League as a footballer? What are the professional conditions and pitches like?

"It's improving, year to year. I've been in the league six years now, but when I first joined, there was only one 3G artificial pitch – which was ours. All the other clubs were grass pitches. Two or three were decent, but a lot of the club pitches were not up to the standard, you'd like. Very wet and, especially around Christmas time, a lot of games were called off.

"Over the years, the Welsh FA have put a lot of money into the clubs to enable them to get artificial pitches. There are 12 teams in the league, and maybe only two have got grass pitches now. At the end of the day, you'd rather play on a nice grass pitch but you'd take an artificial pitch over a mud bath every day.

"It's predominately a part-time league, but two more teams – Bangor and Gap Connah's Quay – are looking at going full-time next season. That will make the league a bit more competitive and give us a bit more of a challenge. It's definitely improving, year to year."

With the success of Swansea City in England and Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, football is growing in Wales. How much publicity and support do you get compared to, say, rugby?

"It's nowhere near the rugby side of things. At the moment, none of the games are getting televised on Sky Sports. I know some Scottish games get televised and Northern Irish leagues get the odd one, but we're not there yet. But there's one live game every week on the Welsh language channel. With Wales doing so well at the last Euros and Gareth Bale doing well, it's helped publicize the league.

"We've still got a long way to go, even if it is improving. With clubs like us competing in Europe, it helps. We manage to get through a round or two of qualifying, but if we get past that third qualifying round [and into the main draw], it would be huge. So, yea, improving, but still a long way to go to get to where rugby is."

Do you have any crazy stories from your time playing in Wales? You play in some pretty remote footballing outposts, it must be said.

"With our club being based in England and you go up to the places in North Wales like Rhyl and Bangor, they're quite passionate Welsh people up there. They don't like us being based in England.

"I've actually scored a few goals against Bangor – they're one of our main rivals. This year has sort of gone berserk really, though. The amount of abuse you get on Twitter from some fans – they give a bit, you try and give a bit back. Hopefully it's all just a bit of friendly banter in the end."

Is there still a few traditions at your level of football, like drinking beer in the sheds with your rivals?

"Our manager likes us to be professional as possible, so it's not every week. But yea, if we've got a game down south, maybe four hours away, we'll enjoy a drink or two on the coach on the way home.

"With only 12 teams in the league, you played everyone four times a season and some more with cup games. So you get to know everyone you play against inside out."

It's a bloody long season then, isn't it?

"Yea, when you take pre-season into it. Come the end of the season yesterday, we started our pre-season training eleven months ago. It's a hell of a long season. We were also in the Scottish Irn Bru Cup this season, with a couple of Northern Irish teams. We did well in that.

"But yea, it's a long season. We've got three weeks off now and start back then. Five weeks from now, we've got our first European game."

You've won the league every year since you've joined TNS. How do you feel reflecting back on your decision to move to play in Wales, now?

"It's been a great move, no regrets at all really. I'm scoring a lot of goals, and the team seems to get stronger and stronger every year. The best thing for me is we keep the majority of our squad every year.

"You become great mates with everyone when that's the case. We've got a really great team spirit. I enjoy going into training every day, because you just get to kick a ball around with a bunch of your mates. That's the best thing about it really."