expert's view

'The Irish aren't just making up numbers, they're actually some of the best players in the league'

As TG4′s AFLW coverage kicks off today, an in-depth look at how the Irish contingent will fare with CrossCoders agent Jason Hill.

SHORTLY AFTER FIVE o’clock this evening, TVs across the country will be switched to TG4 as AFL Aussie Rules na mBan takes centre stage.

aflw-cats-kangaroos North Melbourne and Mayo star Aileen Gilroy is one Irish player tipped for a big 2021 season. AAP / PA Images AAP / PA Images / PA Images

Four years since the league’s inception, a full Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW] game will be shown here for the first time, with deferred coverage of the West Coast Eagles and Adelaide Crows clash reaching these shores from 5.10pm. (It just started, at 6.10am Irish time, so stay off social media if you want the full viewing experience.)

Mayo’s Sister Act Niamh and Grace Kelly, and Tipperary star Aisling McCarthy — debuting after her historic trade from Western Bulldogs — are all down to start for West Coast, while Clare’s 2019 Premiership champion Ailish Considine will feature off the Adelaide interchange bench.

14 Irishwomen are involved in the 2021 competition in total, with seven counties represented across eight clubs. Cavan’s Laura Corrigan Duryea was the first to fly the flag in the 2017 inaugural season before Mayo legend Cora Staunton crossed codes to join her in ’18, and Irish interest exploded from there.

CrossCoders, an agency that helps identify female talent capable of making the transition, ran a trial camp in Melbourne ahead of the 2019 season and three Irish players — Considine, McCarthy and Donegal’s Yvonne Bonner, who opted against returning this time around — signed off the back of that, bringing the total to five as Sarah Rowe also came on board.

That sparked serious interest Down Under with Irish players’ athleticism, and the translatable skills and patterns of play appealing to clubs, just like it does in the men’s game.

18 were on the books for the 2020 season — which came to a premature end due to Covid — and with interest from home soil at an all-time high, many would watch clips on social media and read articles to follow the Irish contingent’s exploits; few even mastering the time difference to watch games on the AFLW app.

There’s no two ways about it: TG4′s new broadcast agreement, which will show full deferred coverage from one match per round on Saturday evenings and a highlights programme on Mondays, is huge.

“It’s great, right?” CrossCoders co-founder and agent to seven Irish players currently, Jason Hill, nods.

“There’s nothing better than being able to sit down in front of the TV and actually watch what’s happening, get to see more than just the highlights or the goals, and get to learn and, I guess, experience the game.

“It’s great for the girls out here, being able to show the people they’ve left at home exactly why they come out here, what it really means — not just to them, but what it means to the crowds here, the people of Australia and why people here love the game so much.”

That’s just scraping the surface, though. Hill references the 20×20 campaign and its famous, ‘Can’t see, can’t be’ tagline.

It’s so important for young, aspiring Irish athletes, and the next generation in general. 

“We’re able to show young girls that if you do play Gaelic football, camogie, rugby, AFL in Ireland, there is a pathway to potentially be a professional athlete at some point in your life.

I think it’s amazing to give the opportunity to girls and women around the country to be able to experience the sport, and to showcase that these really talented Irish players are not just turning up to be one of the numbers, they’re actually some of the best players in the league. It’s going to be a great, great showcase for 2021.”

Viewership numbers could indeed be quite high through lockdown 3.0, and plenty of eyes — new ones, at that — will be on Mineral Resources Park later today, for a start. 

Today’s big game on TG4

What should we expect, you ask?

“A pretty one-sided affair,” Hill concedes at first, going off their track record. West Coast are still only in their second year, while Adelaide remain the reigning champions from ’19. 

The Crows have certainly been boosted by returning stars Erin Phillips and Chelsea Randall, and are looking to improve on their 2020 exploits, but he has heard positive reports from the Eagles.

“Speaking to the girls, the game plan seems to have quickened up. They seem to be more interested in how they can move the ball quicker. That’s going to play into the hands of the likes of Aisling, Niamh and Grace, who will be able to potentially utilise their speed.

“One of the biggest problems the West Coast Eagles had last year was getting their hands on the ball out in midfield and getting it into their forward line. I think that’s where they saw Aish Mc [Aisling McCarthy] could make a difference to their side.

“I would definitely expect West Coast to be better this year. I think Aish Mc makes a big difference to their midfield, adds a final piece they were looking for around the ball.

Screenshot 2021-01-28 at 20.44.56 Irish athleisure brand Gym+Coffee is sponsoring the AFLW 2021 season broadcast on TG4, having welcomed Aisling McCarthy as an ambassador. Gym+Coffee. Gym+Coffee.

“We’ve seen that her class with the ball will shine through when she gets the chance. Hopefully she can repeat some of her pre-season form where she kicked three goals against Fremantle in a practice match.”

He predicts a convincing Adelaide win, but sees plenty of room for improvement in West Coast, who won just one of their six games last year.

Alongside McCarthy — “She’s played just 12 games of football in her life and is now being touted as one of the best midfielders in the league,” as Hill said before — the Kellys will also play central roles for the Perth outfit.

Grace is back to her brilliant best after a knee injury and should hit the ground running, named in the half forward line alongside her younger sister, who has just recovered from a hamstring setback of her own.

“Looking at the amount of work Grace put in in her recovery, I’d say that she’s gonna be quicker and fitter even than she was last year, which will make her an interesting match-up for defenders because she does have a bit of height about her as well,” Hill explains.

“If she can keep the development going the right way with the learning of the game and the positions she needs to be in, she’s going to make some big leaps this year. I know that’s her only goal and her mindset is, ‘How can I learn the game so I can be in the right place at the right time to utilise my weaponry?’

“Niamh spent a lot of time on the wing last year, is starting in the forwards this week, and will rotate into the middle. I think they’re very keen to use her agility and her speed to brake packs, brake lines — and obviously, still being a classy footballer and being able to move the ball well.

All three of them, I think they’re going to be big, big parts of the West Coast success. If they’re all fit and firing and all take big leaps this year, that will be what makes the difference to West Coast.”

Considine, meanwhile, is no strange opposition to the trio. While they’ve locked horns on Australian Ovals already, they’re all well used to facing off on the inter-county scene. Not only that, she’s been a team-mate of Grace Kelly’s and McCarthy’s at UL.

And just like the others, Hill believes that Considine will take her game to new heights in 2021. 

aflw-crows-cats Considine facing Geelong in 2019. AAP / PA Images AAP / PA Images / PA Images

“She’s been there, done that, literally got the Premiership T-shirt. I think she just needs to settle back in. By all means, she’ll even say this herself, she had a bit of a down year last year where she was trying to change positions, she got treated as a bit of an experienced player, when in reality, she had played six games of football before that.

“I think they forgot that there’s still a lot in her development that needs to happen. I know she’s been working extremely hard this off-season to make sure she’s ready to be part of the team that is looking to push to get back into that top four.

“She’ll add a bit of touch and skill off the interchange. She has some of the best skills, I think, when it comes to the Irish contingent. I do think that that will play into her hands, if they go back to the way they used to play which is that keep-ball, kick-mark sort of game.

If Ailish can get in the game early and get her hands on the ball, I think that will do wonders for her confidence and flow into the way she plays.”

More to come 

Cavan’s “fit and firing” Aishling Sheridan set the tone for the Irish with a stunning two-goal haul in Collingwood’s sell-out opener on Thursday (injury ruled team-mate Rowe out), and Hill feels that many will follow suit with eye-catching performances this weekend.

He expects big seasons all-round, a teak-tough Mayo star one of the first names on his lips when he’s asked what we can expect from the Irish this year in general.

Aileen Gilroy is probably one of the most exciting Irish talents out here. When you speak to the coaches and the list managers, I think they were most surprised by her. The physicality she brings isn’t necessarily something you’d expect from a Gaelic footballer.

“With North Melbourne looking to push to win a Premiership this year, I expect her to be an integral part of that backline.”

Their first assignment is against Geelong in the early hours of tomorrow morning, while three Irish players will be heavily invested in the later meeting of Greater Western Sydney [GWS] Giants and Fremantle — who were motoring best last year and backed for the flag before the season came to a sudden close.

While Green and Red great Staunton will be the only Irishwoman on the field, her team-mate Bríd Stack and Freo’s Áine Tighe will be watching on, both ruled out with injury.

aflw-giants-demons Staunton is preparing for her fourth season in the league. AAP / PA Images AAP / PA Images / PA Images

“Obviously, Cora is Cora, there’s no doubt about that,” Hill grins, little-to-no other opinion required. “I guess the question will be at the ripe young age of 39, how long can she keep going and keep performing to the level she does because she is still such an amazing athlete.

“Bríd, obviously, can’t believe what happened there. So unlucky that in your first game, a freak injury like that would happen but we’re excited to see what she can bring.

“It would have been great to see them both on the pitch, but I’d expect Cora to still deliver and be an integral part of that GWS side.”

Likewise, he’d love to see Tighe in action, another knee injury sustained in the final pre-season hurdle ruling the Leitrim forward out for the second season-in-row. 

“Completely unfortunate,” he frowns.”Fingers crossed her rehab goes well, and we’ll maybe get a glimpse of her at the back end of the season if Fremantle do make it towards finals.”

Three Dubliners have been fixated on today’s early kick-off, Melbourne v Gold Coast Suns, with four-in-a-row All-Ireland winning trio Sinéad Goldrick, Niamh McEvoy and rookie Lauren Magee on the books at Melbourne.

Having all just emerged from their 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine last week, Goldrick is the only player in line for action on the interchange bench, which is no surprise.

“Due to the amount of games she played last year, she was probably the most advanced of the three players learning the game when she came back this year. I’d expect Sinéad to pick up where she left off, playing in that backline similar to Aileen — doing less creative stuff, it’s more about obviously the defensive side and making sure that she can utilise her speed to close down opponents.

“With the other two being more attack-minded players, I think that takes a little bit longer to learn, read and understand the game. Niamh is listed as an emergency for this week. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of weeks time, we see her back into the side.

“I guess Lauren’s a bit of an unknown quality right now. She probably would be known for her gut-running in Gaelic football, so it will be interesting to see if she can break into that midfield at Melbourne. She just needs to keep the head down at training, keep working hard and I’m sure, at some some point, she’ll get an opportunity this season.”

aflw-dockers-lions Orla O'Dwyer facing Fremantle last season. AAP / PA Images AAP / PA Images / PA Images

And last, but by no means least, this weekend, Tipperary triple-threat Orla O’Dwyer is gearing up for her second season at Brisbane Lions, who face Richmond in their first encounter tomorrow.

Having watched her train in the off-season, Hill is predicting an even bigger 2021 for the Premier dual star: “She’s looking very good, and looking like she’s taken some good steps with her football.

“The Brisbane Lions are going to be a bit more competitive this year, and I’d say she’s definitely pushing to be part of that half forward, midfield line. I’m looking forward to see what she can bring this year, obviously another year of knowledge under her belt and she hasn’t got any slower and she definitely hasn’t got less fit so I expect that tank to be a big part of her game

“She might sneak a couple of goals this week against a Richmond side who will probably be towards the bottom end of the league. I can see Brisbane maybe putting on a bit of a show there on Sunday.”

Just like our Irish talent in general over the coming weeks, as they hope to take the league by storm once again.

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel