It’s somewhat of an understatement to say GAA followers sit rather uncomfortably with the idea of young Irish players moving to Oz but with few players succeeding is it really an issue?
Ever since Ron Barassi landed on the tarmac of Dublin Airport with his recruiting team in 1982 GAA coaches, selectors and fans have feared their star players being “poached” by big spending AFL clubs from the other side of the world.
25 years on, a couple of dozen transfers around the globe and what have we learned? Well, the answer to that is in the levels of success that Irish players have achieved…or not.
The first recruits of “The Irish Experiment” were Kerry’s Sean Wight, Dublin’s Jimmy Stynes, Roscommon’s Paul Earley and Derry’s Dermot McNicholl and in a way their stories set out the path for the rest of the Irish to come.
Let’s start with the “tall, skinny lad”, the biggest success of them all: Jimmy Stynes. AFL great, club hero, philanthropist, charity worker and inspiration to thousands. Arriving in Melbourne in 1984 it took Stynes three years to break into the then high-flying Melbourne team. Starting well he cemented his place in the team and subsequently went on to become Melbourne’s go-to man and one of the greatest AFL players of all time. His career highlights include a Melbourne Night Premiership, a Brownlow Medal, two entries into the All-Australian Team and four Best and Fairest Awards at Melbourne Football Club. If you’re not up to scratch with your AFL terminology, it basically means he was beyond good. That’s not to mention his record breaking 203 consecutive games.
Before his tragic death in March 2012, Styne’s inspirational work stretched beyond the playing field as he set up The Reach Foundation, an outreach network for young people in Australia, as well as becoming the Chairman of Melbourne Football Club in 2008. Under his leadership the club refused to bow down to the AFL’s attempts to relocate them to Queensland and kept the club in Melbourne, the heartbeat of AFL.
Although often in Styne’s shadow, Sean Wight also had a large amount of success at Melbourne, playing 150 games and justifying his reputation for being a tough defender and someone that you didn’t want to come up against.
Unfortunately, the cases of Paul Earley and Dermot McNicholl weren’t so successful with the pair amassing a total of four appearances between them and returning to Ireland long before their Aussie Rule careers could have begun.
This vast gap in their levels of success seems to have carried through to the modern day as the last decade has really been a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly for the Irish down under.
When he can actually make his mind up about which sport he wants to play the most successful convert of the modern era is Tadhg Kennelly, currently on the coaching staff of The Sydney Swans. The winner of an AFL Premiership Medal in 2005, Kennelly fell just short of 200 games for the Swans in what was an injury frustrated, but nonetheless, successful career.
Our current batch down under are spearheaded by Pearce Hanley at the Brisbane Lions, Marty Clarke of Collingwood and Zach Tuohy of Carlton. Of the three, Hanley is progressing the fastest with a move into the midfield this year. He has rewarded the club by being one of their standout players in the early season, only to have been hampered by injury over the last week.
Clarke and Tuohy find themselves relatively secure in the heart of their respective defences, but are they stand out players? No. They do their jobs to a decent level, and that’s about it. However, Clarke and Tuohy have a long way to go and a lot to learn.
And that’s where we’ll find out whether “The Irish Experiment” will work or not. Development. Four more Irish players make up the 2013 lists, most of whom are still very much at this long developmental stage. The Sydney Swans are training up Kerry’s Tommy Walsh, Brian McKeever is breaking through at Brisbane and Caolan Mooney is sitting on Collingwood’s rookie list. For most, the conversion is a long drawn out affair and that’s exactly what all of the above have been finding out on the training pitch day in, day out since their move.
Last but not least is Setanta O’hAilpin, who somehow managed to put together 80 appearances at Carlton before moving to the Greater Western Sydney Giants in 2012. Since the move, he has developed a closer relationship with the club’s physio team than with his actual team mates, having only pieced together a couple of games in the Sydney suburbs. A team full of youngsters, the Giants have held onto him so that they can have a few experienced heads on the pitch. Not that he ever really plays.
So, should the GAA be worried? Is “The Irish Experiment” paying off for the AFL? The facts speak for themselves: Three converts have been successful in Stynes, Wight and Kennelly. Hanley is heading that way and Tuohy and Clarke also look on course to be decent players. O’hAilpin’s costs alone in medical fees and wages do not justify his signing to the AFL and not to mention that he beat up a teammate in an internal match at Carlton. He’s a player that clubs have viewed as someone with bucket loads of potential but at this stage it’s all too late. It’s this supposed potential that clubs hope to see in Walsh, McKeever and Mooney. It’s this potential that allows clubs to over look wasted time and money on past failed experiments like Michael Quinn, Ciaran Kilkenny and Colm Begley.
How much longer are they going to put money into a scheme that brings such inconsistent results?
There are alternatives to the Irish players out there – Aussie Rules is an expanding game. Over the past decade the AFL have created two new teams in states where Aussie Rules takes a back set behind other sports – New South Wales and Queensland. Rugby League dominates in these states but the AFL have turned this to their advantage by converting popular rugby league stars like Karmicheal Hunt and Isreal Folau to the game. Although the later has now given up on the oval park. Numbers are on the rise and the amount of kids taking up the sport in Australia is increasing. Their neighbours are taking it up too. This week St Kilda played out a thriller with The Sydney Swans in Wellington where New Zealand Prime Minister John Key stated that the country needed an AFL team.
With home grown talent on the rise, the potential of Australian rugby and basketball players changing codes, Kiwis crossing the water, only half of the AFL clubs participating in “The Irish Experiment” and with a hostile reception to scouts in Ireland it’s hard to see a large number of GAA players being recruiting over the coming years.
Maybe the biggest danger to the GAA is Ireland’s economy. The current influx of Irish immigrants are popping up in amateur Aussie Rules teams all across the country including an all Irish team, The Irish Warriors, in Sydney. It’s economics, economics, economics. It’s economics that’s making people move to Oz and it’s economics that dictates that nothing will sell tickets to the ex-pat Irish community like a local Irish lad donning a gansey for the first time in the AFL.
The success of “The Irish Experiment” relies on how the current crop of converts develop and the only way to describe that prospect is uncertain.