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'There were kids wearing my number on their back and little plaits in their hair the same as I had'

Cavan’s Laura Corrigan Duryea brings The42 through a surreal first year with Melbourne FC in the AFLW.

lcd Source: Zimbio.com

SURREAL IS ONE of the words Laura Corrigan Duryea uses when she speaks about the year that’s been.

It was January 2017 when many on this side of the world first got wind of her story.

The previous November she had been selected as a free agent by Melbourne FC, becoming the first international player picked for the inaugural Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) competition.

In that, she also became the first Irish woman to play in the league and it was confirmed that she would wear Jim Stynes’ famous number 11 at the club.

She’s been signed up again for another season so obviously played a starring role, but we’ll get to that shortly.

First, for those unaware, here’s a quick recap of how she came from a small parish in Cavan called Drumlane to gracing Casey Fields with the oval ball in hand.

In brief — 10 years ago, she set out on an around-the-world backpacking trip. She headed for Thailand, did a month there and then on to Australia.

An inter-county player at the time, she got sucked into the Gaelic football scene in Melbourne and fell in love with the place. Then stemmed the unlikely venture to Aussie Rules.

An opponent in Gaelic Park one day told her she should try it out. She went to training shortly after, absolutely loved it and has never looked back.

She balanced the two codes for quite some time, eventually catching the eye of Melbourne FC while lining out with Diamond Creek.

The deal was done last November, the move was made to the AFLW and the rest is pretty much history.

“It feels like it wasn’t that long again since I was talking to you the last time,” she says shortly after she picks up the phone on the way home from training one November evening.

“It’s madness that it’s nearly Christmas again. Time flies when you’re having fun I guess!”

The previous time Corrigan Duryea spoke to The42, she was well and truly facing into the unknown, unsure of what exactly lay ahead.

To be exact, it was 17 January. Of course, she had been in training and settling into life with the AFLW club but nothing could fully prepare her for what would ensue.

At that stage, it was just over two weeks until the inaugural AFLW season’s kick-off and first up for Melbourne was a home fixture against the Brisbane Lions.

That was on the Sunday but the opening clash saw Carlton and Collingwood go head-to-head at Princes Park on the Friday where 24,500 packed into the venue to watch history in the making.

Corrigan Duryea, who won two Ulster medals with Cavan in the past, wasn’t there herself because she wanted to stay focused on her own job two days later. But she speaks glowingly of the reports she heard from the inner Melbourne suburb.

“The first game was obviously a lockout,” she begins.

“They had to turn away thousands, the president had to go out and apologise to the crowd. People were hopping walls and fences. That was unbelievable.

lcd1 Source: Melbourne FC Twitter

“It was absolutely phenomenal. That was the biggest crowd of all the games. It was just the excitement and hearing people’s stories who were at that game.People crying, the banners people had made, people who thought they would never see it.

“Girls who had played footy forever and are now retired, thinking of everyone that was part of making this happen. They had been part of the process, pushing for it over the years.”

She was surely glad saved her adrenaline for her side’s opener two days later, as her chance came to experience the rush so many others had felt for the first time over the rest of the weekend.

The last clash of the opening four, this was really happening.

All the slog and pre-season work over the last few months, it all boiled down to this. Running out to a massive crowd at Casey Fields. The sky was dull but the atmosphere was far from it. Nothing could dampen the excitement.

“I’ve played in county finals, I’ve played in Ulster finals and that back home,” she continues.

“But running out, running through a banner, there’s the cheer squad. The whole staff from my school were there so probably about 50 adults and a load of the kids that I teach were there and they had made banners. It was so full-on.

“It would have been very easy to lose focus of the job at hand so I had to keep saying to myself ‘You’re here to do a job, just keep your eye on the grass’.

“If you were to look around, there were cameras everywhere, there were people shouting your name, kids wearing your number on their back and kids wearing little plaits in their hair the same I had.

“It was surreal like. Just crazy. Before the game, the cameras are in the room. If you’ve never experienced anything like that before, it’s pretty daunting.

“You have to be pretty mentally strong to stay focused.”

As the action got underway, the sky got greyer and greyer. It wasn’t long before the rain started bucketing it down and it was fair to call it a thunderstorm by the time half-time approached.

“Actually, there was a big strike of lightning, and it hit the field next to us,” she recalls.

“I don’t know if it’s ever happened in the history of football before but they actually had to call the game off and everyone had to get off the ground. The umpires blew the whistle and basically escorted us off the ground and into the changing rooms.”

Just as Melbourne were building momentum, they were stopped in their tracks. Out they went on the restart, but the couldn’t just get back into the swing of things again.

“We went out again and it was absolutely lashing, I mean rain going sideways and the wind would just cut you. We basically had Irish weather!

“Brisbane were probably a bigger, stronger team and we’re more of a lighter, younger, classy team. I just think our girls didn’t adapt quick enough to the conditions and they did.

“We weren’t expected to lose the first game, and we didn’t think we’d lose the first game. It was disappointing  but in a sense it was probably a kick in the arse as well, like ‘Welcome to the AFL, it’s not going to be easy’.”

It may well have been the welcome they needed. From there, the only way was up.

They won all of the rest of their games apart from one. Their only defeat came to Greater Western Sydney — the team Cora Staunton has signed for — in their first away fixture.

It was all new; flying a few days beforehand, staying in a hotel and wasting some energy and excitement in doing so. And once again, the weather conditions were far from ideal.

“It absolutely lashed down,” she says.

“There was literally an inch of water sitting on top of the grass. Tough conditions obviously for both teams.

“In the last quarter, all we needed was a goal. The ball was literally within the goal, goal-kicking distance the whole last 20 minutes. We just could not score a goal for the life of us.

“Basically the two games we lost were the two wet games. I think we’ll be doing a bit of wet weather training! There’s sprinklers on the ground so I’ve told them that they need to put them on for a few of the games.

“I remember them saying to me in the changing rooms at the two wet games, ‘C’mon Irish, this is your weather, you’ve got this!’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, but I’m one player. I can’t bloody win the game for us just because I’m used to rain!’”

Round Seven. D-Day. The weekend of the 18 and 19 March.

To make the Grand Final, Melbourne needed two things to happen. They needed to beat Fremantle, and win by a high margin, and then leave their fate in the hands of others.

They needed Collingwood to beat Adelaide the following day.

64 points was the difference in the end against Fremantle so their job was done and dusted. Now they had to wait.

Collingwood’s facilities and ground are right beside Melbourne’s so after Corrigan Duryea’s side’s recovery session that morning they decided to stick around and watch the game together as a team on the big screen.

“We said ‘We’ll just watch it here as a team and hopefully the news is good’. They had the beating of them. We were all like ‘Oh my God, we’re going to be in the Grand Final, this is great!’

“Then the last quarter they literally stopped playing, they gave up and that was it. It was absolutely shattering to think that they (Collingwood) were 100m from us and we had beaten Adelaide two weeks previously up in Darwin in 42-degree heat, and then this.”

And of course, Adelaide went on to beat Brisbane in the Grand Final, making it all the more heartbreaking.

“We were dying to play Brisbane again because we knew we’d beat them, we just didn’t play well on the day. So basically, we missed out on a percentage.

“We finished on the same points as Adelaide, the same amount of wins and losses, but basically on percentage they beat us. It was like a goal or something like that in the difference.

“We definitely learned from it. Then obviously, to miss out. We played so well. Ask anyone who watched it, who isn’t biased and doesn’t actually have a team and have just watched every game, they’d tell you that we were the team to beat.

“We were the team that were just growing, we just got so much better as the season went on.”

lc2

She continues: “It was brilliant, very enjoyable.

“Being part of the first year, part of history and everyone just wanting to make the absolute most of the experience. Very exciting, very surreal first year, but hopefully it’ll help us going into round two.

“The majority of our team have been through it and that helps the younger players. There’s 17-year-olds finishing their Leaving Cert equivalent at the moment so they’re going to go straight from doing exams to being an AFL player which is pretty daunting.”

She likes to speak about the team rather than reflect individually on what a fantastic year it’s been. Not only did Melbourne get better as the season went on, Corrigan Duryea did.

To be retained at 33 years of age is no mean feat, especially considering the host of talented youngsters coming through the ranks.

In our conversation last January she spoke about not knowing where she stood. Last in the door and all that. She worked extremely hard to get where she is, did all of her homework and flourished as time passed.

“Every training session, you have to prove yourself. Even if you got a game one week, it didn’t guarantee that you got a game the next week. The pressure was on the whole time.

“But the more you develop, the more confidence you have in yourself. You’re playing good games, you’re getting good feedback. You’re taking on the feedback and improving on things. As the season went on, I felt a bit more reassured.

“To be pick 26 and I finished up sixth on the (club awards) best and fairest, it was a pretty big leap.”

Knowing what lay ahead, draft day this time around was a much calmer affair.

Corrigan Duryea is a teacher, so she watched it on her phone at the beach while the kids were doing a science project. It’s an exciting day, she says, but like everything in sport, there’s success and failure, euphoria and heartbreak. That’s just the game.

Players come and players go, that’s just how things are.

“I know I’m 33,” she accepts. “I know it’s not going to go on forever so I’m just going to make the most of it.

“When the day comes that they say ‘Listen…..’ I’ll shake their hand and say ‘Listen, thanks for the opportunity, I’ve absolutely loved it. I totally get it. No hard feelings. It is what it is, and it was just so nice to be a part of it’.

“Hopefully I can continue being some part of the club. I’d love to get involved within the AFL or something, we’ll see. There’s definitely lots of opportunities there.”

She’s hoping that’s quite some time away yet but her parents are the polar opposite, she laughs.

“My mother, she’s a bit more like ‘Oh God now, you’d want to be looking after yourself, you’re getting old! You’d want to be thinking about having babies soon!’ And I’m like ‘Jaysis, there’s plenty of time for that, don’t be worrying about babies!’

“Dad was telling me this time last year when I was home that I needed to hang the boots up, that I was getting too old. It’s funny, isn’t it, what can happen in 12 months?”

They’re obviously delighted to see her doing what she loves all the same though.

Thanks to Corrigan Duryea’s success with the oval ball, AFLW has become all the rage in Milltown. Her family and friends didn’t get to make the trip over, but kept up to date with all of the action through the season.

“We got the neighbour to hook the laptop up to the tely,” she smiles. “So the family got up at 6am every morning to watch the games.

Cora Staunton Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Then I’d speak to them that night and they’d have a load of questions; ‘What does that mean and why did she do that or what’s her name?’

“My dad became a fan favourite of Karen Taxman, who’s a legend. He’d be like ‘How’s my girlfriend doing? Tell her she had a great game at the weekend, she was brilliant!’

“Ah no, they absolutely loved it.”

And now with two Irish players in the AFLW — Corrigan Duryea and Staunton — interest is only going to rise.

It’s something the Cavan native is more than excited about too, as she told The42 in an in-depth piece about the move in November.

Round One of 2018, Melbourne and GWS lock horns and the Irish pair could indeed end up marking each other. What a way to kick proceedings off once again.

Plain and simple, they’re gunning for it.

“Well, we know that we were one of the best teams last year. We know we definitely should have been at least in the Grand Final and then obviously, whatever happens in a final, happens in a final.

“To know that Adelaide went on to win it and we had beaten them, obviously that’s a kick in the…. you know.

“It just gives us more motivation going into this year, knowing what we have.

“Ok, you’ve got rid of a few players, you’ve got even better players in. It’s exciting. You’ve got all of these 17-year-olds coming in they’re meant to be unbelievable.

“The standard and everything is just going to step up another level this year as well. No one kind of knows what to expect.

“We’re excited, and we’re already being tipped to win it. You don’t know. It’s a compliment. But look, we’ll see what happens.”

She’s back in full-blown training at the minute so it’s not your standard Christmas of relaxation for Corrigan Duryea. She hasn’t made the trip back to her homeland opting to stay in Oz, firmly on the wagon.

She hopes to get home for a holiday at some stage after the season finishes but in the meantime, there’s bigger fish to fry.

The AFLW opener in February and that clash between Melbourne and GWS, and Corrigan Duryea and Cora, is mentioned once more just before we hang up and exchange our well wishes until next time.

“Hopefully I’ll be ringing to say that I roasted Cora Staunton!” she grins. “We’ll see.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

‘I never thought I’d be playing against Cora Staunton in Australia, I’ll tell you that’

What started as a backpacking trip turned into wearing Jim Stynes’ number at Melbourne FC

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