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The allure of sun, sea and AFL pay cheques

The allure of the AFL is becoming ever stronger for Ireland’s Gaelic footballers, as the sport becomes more and more elite.

As the dust settles on another polarizing International Rules series, we face the prospect of losing more promising, homegrown talent to the sunshine drenched world of professional sport in Australia.

This threat has always clouded clubs and counties around the nation, but as the amateurism of Gaelic Football broaches more and more towards the elitism of professional sport, the threat of young Irish talent leaving is stronger than ever.

Ever since the emigration of Tadgh Kennelly, of Listowel and Kerry, the allure has strengthened. Tadgh now, rather controversially, works on the recruitment side of the AFL and runs a combine in Dublin every year to rate the Irish talent and guide them towards a move to Australia.

Amongst those who have had their heads swayed by Kennelly are Conor McKenna, who was plucked from Benburb in Tyrone for life at Essendon, in Melbourne and Zach Tuohy, who left Portlaoise for their city rival Carlton. Tipperary’s Colin O’Riordan has recently signed a new contract to stay in Syndey.

McKenna has taken to the league better than most exports. Having been asked by Essendon to join them in Oz at the international combine in Dublin, Conor said, “Essendon came over and talked to my family and assured me everything was gonna work out”. He’s gone on to play over 30 games for the club and looks likely to forge a successful career for himself.

McKenna left behind his club at Eglish and a Tyrone team knocking not far from an All-Ireland. This leads us to ask, what makes the game of Australian football so attractive to young Irish GAA players well established on the inter-county scene?

The chance of being a professional sportsperson is a dream of any boy, perhaps knocking ball for Manchester Utd or flying down the wing at Leinster.  The GAA has ingrained a belief where you there is more to sports than money and endorsements. There’s the club, the people, the honour of representing your family and community.

But money talks. Australian football is the closest opportunity many of these players will ever have to making a living playing sport, using their elite athleticism to help earn a pay cheque beyond an office or building site.

The transition, especially for such young players, must be of course daunting, but it would also have been daunting for those fleeing to employment in other sectors too. Any Irish players who have been interviewed would agree that the climate and environment in Australia as a benefit. McKenna said himself, “you don’t get rain everyday so that’s a plus”. The guaranteed sun and all its benefits is something very few in their late teens and early 20s would find plain to turn down.

In addition, the skills required for ‘footy’ are quite similar to Gaelic football. The one major difference, which is perhaps easier to craft into exuberant young players, is the aggression in the tackling and the physicality needed to compete against the power and physicality of the Aussie opposition.

In International series gone by, Ireland are traditionally more reserved about their stamina, with more accurate kicking and technical playmaking. Australia are traditionally more powerful and physical, winning more one-on-one battles throughout the field.

The quality of Irish talent from a technical perspective is unquestionably elite, honed over years of playing two, three, perhaps even four sports. To Gaelic’s third cousin in the southern hemisphere, they see a talent pool that can be crafted into great footy players.

For many, there’s still no place like home. Tadhg Kennelly proved that you can return from Australia and still be successful. In 2009, at 27-years-old, Kennelly returned to the south east of Ireland and made his senior debut with Kerry, having won a Premiership title with the Sydney Swans a few years prior.

He won an All-Ireland medal in September of that year, becoming the first ever player to win a championship medal in both codes of sport. Mammy’s cooked dinners and the local club will always be there for our exports.

Of course, not everyone is successful in Australia. Only 32% of the Irish players who have attempted to succeed in Australia have actually played a game.

Of that 32%, only 45% have played over 20 games in the AFL. It’s like someone from Australia coming over and getting in the Dublin team – there’s too many players who’ve been playing since they could walk competing for the same opportunities.

The league is expoiting the Irish naiveté to use their elite skillset, but only if it fits the requirements of the AFL. This can leave a layer feeling devalued, returning to Ireland with their tail between their legs. Just another cog in the machine of professional sport – easily discardable.

Conor McManus, a series vice-captain this year and one of the country’s best forwards, has been linked with a move down under after his performances in this Autumn’s series. His kicking ability from any position and his ability with side-line marks were hugely impressive, triggering rumours that some AFL clubs may prise him from Monaghan. Many fans want their clubs to make an approach, even if he is 29.

For most however, the International Series is just a chance to represent your country. It’s not simply an all star XV of the nation’s best footballers, but includes a sprinkling of individual power and physicality that comes from players not very well known. Niall Grimley, 22, is a 6’2”, 87 kg midfielder playing in Division 3 with Armagh, who were knocked out of the Ulster Championship in the first round by Down.

He may not have been near an All Star, but his athletic and technical prowess was recognised by fellow Orchard County native Joe Kiernan, and was rewarded with a call-up – honouring his family and community by representing his nation. Grimley has no intention of making the move to Australia any time soon, but can say he played for Ireland on an international platform.

On the other hand, questions face Kerry superstar David Clifford as a potential target for the AFL international recruitment scheme.

His amazing performance in the All-Ireland final versus Derry showcased his ultra-impressive ability. His 10-68 in his two years at minor level is unprecedented. Clifford is likely to go on and become a perennial All Star with Kerry, if the Kingdom can shake off the advances of AFL clubs.

Unlike others however, Clifford perhaps possesses an elite talent the country hasn’t seen for a long time – the receipt of which affording him the chance to make a very healthy living staying at home in Fossa.

Many people see the likes of Tuohy and McKenna as deserters, but as Gaelic football asks for more power and physicality, in addition to its already technical base, the allure of Australia will become ever more enticing for Irish talent. The world is getting smaller, and so is the differences between Ireland’s football and Australia’s footy. For the likes of Clifford, there’s no place like home in Kerry. But for a lot of Irish youngsters, the prospect of the AFL looks more and more attractive – sun, beaches, and the odd pay cheque playing professional sport. Should we really begrudge those worthy enough of giving it a go?

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