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Sport The Irish dilemma: Gaelic football talent in the AFL and AFLW

19:40  23 october  2020
19:40  23 october  2020 Source:   theroar.com.au

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Last Tuesday marked a milestone for retired Cork footballer Brid Stack, who was picked up by AFLW side Greater Western Sydney Giants as an international rookie.

The 11-time All-Ireland medal winner was approached by the Giants in early 2019 and couldn’t turn down the opportunity to play at a professional level. Stack is officially the 17th Irish woman to join the AFLW for the 2021 season. She will link up with Mayo’s Cora Staunton and Donegal’s Yvonne Bonner in the coming weeks as the AFLW season is set to restart following the COVID outbreak.

The increasing number of Gaelic footballers who have crossed codes to AFL has been a contentious topic among the GAA and Irish media in terms of professionalism. Stack is one of the few who will not be included in this conversation. Being a retiree, she will not influence Cork’s inter-county pursuits.

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For the women who continue to identify themselves as both a LGFA players and ALFW players, there has been some scrutiny from certain county managers and county boards. Such scrutiny was expressed by current Mayo Ladies’ manager Peter Leahy, who subsequently lost four starting players – Sarah Rowe (Collingwood), Niamh and Grace Kelly (West Coast Eagles) and Aileen Gilroy (North Melbourne) – for the Lidl Ladies Football League. Before COVID, the structure of the AFLW allows such players to return for the championship but Leahy believes this tarnishes the reputation of the National Football League and its sponsorship.

Sarah Rowe is one of a growing number of Irish players in the AFLW. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Leahy’s argument of the protection of ladies football is clear but the ultimate decision for these ladies to become essentially dual stars is admirable. There is always thought for the girls at home of course – the girls that trudge through the gruesome winter months of preseason only to lose out when the Aussie star returns home.

There are advantages to having these ladies abroad, such as producing exposure and recognisable player profiles, which ladies football desperately needs to expand. The choice to leave the shores of Ireland has always been a theme in every generation since the famine and in this generation, you are being rewarded with a professional contract for your skills and attributes in your native sport. The lifestyle that is possible in Australia is a major pull for many Irish, including the ladies set to do their second or third season in the AFLW.

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The frustration is obviously expressed from those left behind. The rumours of David Clifford being scouted by AFL teams made for panicked unrest in Kerry. The AFL has one eye on Ireland for talent, both male and female, and this is proven with the AFL European Talent Combine being hosted on our shores.

AFL itself has become popular in Ireland with many universities adopting AFL as a choice for new students. The popularity is also due to the opportunity for unknown talent to become identified by a professional entity such as the first Irish woman, Laura Corrigan Duryea, who picked up the sport with Melbourne University in 2008. After many years she was then recruited by Melbourne in 2016 when the AFLW became a legitimate league.

On the one hand, the GAA ostensibly has little to fear of AFL, given Gaelic football is played nationwide for men. Inter-county males have an advantage over their female counterparts when it comes to sponsorship and marketing deals. Those who do leave seem to be those who were on the outer edges of the county set-up or young up-and-coming talent seeking adventure before settling.

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Irish men have thrived, though, in the AFL. Men such as Tadhg Kennelly with the Sydney Swans and the current Geelong stars Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor are shining the South Pacific sun on the AFL opportunity.

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Moving thousands of miles to Australia has suited many generations and continues to do so. The draw towards stunning beaches and a higher quality of life is a serious reason behind AFL’s succession in attracting Irish talent. However, is the grass really greener on the other side?

Conor McKenna, who spent a number of seasons with Essendon, proved that crippling homesickness is a component of the AFL sacrifice. The Tyrone man has struggled with the thought of life back home. That is a genuine concern to those Irish who travel to Australia. The disconnect from GAA will always cause some friction for those who adapt to the oval ball and guernseys. There is undoubtedly a risk of injury like many sports but the intensity of AFL in comparison to GAA is evident.

All arguments aside, there are numerous reasons for GAA/LGFA players to leave Irish shores and experience a new level of sporting excellence. It is clear as a nation we are capable of making a major foothold in an AFL franchise. Figures in the GAA are particularly unhappy in the recruitment from agents and former AFL players to literally drop everything and leave to breakthrough or fail within a new sport. These players are integrated into a sport among Aussie players who have been at the elite level from a young age.

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Ironically, within the new GAA rules, a player is awarded a mark (free kick for an overhead catch), which is an essential skill within AFL. For the LGFA this is a more serious issue with dominant county players departing for six to nine months a year or more as COVID has indicated. The recruitment of ladies is extremely predisposed towards minors and under-21s and the opportunity for these ladies, who may not even be given a meal after training, is to be treated in a professional manner.

For now, it is only the beginning of the GAA versus AFL story in Ireland. The surface has been scraped but it takes more influential players to cross codes before we see a significant impact on our native sport.

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From selling rotting seaweed to putting Mayo on the map, Mr Biden's Irish ancestors were a busy lot.His family roots stretch from the Cooley peninsula on the east coast of Ireland to the town of Ballina in the west.

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This is interesting!