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‘Irish people watch it and think it should be as clean as Gaelic football. They are completely different’

Ahead of the AFLW grand final, Sarah Rowe and Ailish Considine discuss the perception of the game in Ireland and the rising standards in Australia.

AT FIRST, SARAH Rowe had a problem. Every game was a struggle. She was becoming exasperated despite the club’s understanding and sympathy. The new rules were survivable, but the gameplay was insufferable.

“I would be pulling my hair out,” she recalls. “Standing in open space wondering, why won’t the play switch? Why won’t the ball just land in my hand and I don’t have to think about it? Why won’t you open your fucking eyes.”

Playing Australian Rules while still programmed as a Gaelic footballer. The Mayo star was making predictions based on her bank of experience in that code. That intuition does not translate. It felt like a system failure.

Charting her progression from then to now is like moving from night to day. The Collingwood winger knows how to read the game. What to do for stoppages and in contested areas. Where to get her body and how to protect herself.

aflw-magpies-kangaroos Source: AAP/PA Images

“Some people watch the game like it should be Gaelic football, which is wrong. At the same time, there are things we can learn from Gaelic. Our coach always says to me when watching vision, ‘Rowy what were you thinking here? I am just trying to get into your psyche.’

“’Well in Gaelic football if I get the ball here, I am driving on to draw a player. Small things like that.’ He’ll say, ‘Right, I like that. We need more on that wavelength.’ So, I’ll explain we can play more of a running game. Irish players do add another dimension. You think another way. Then I need to get into their psyche too.  

“I need to understand why on God’s green earth do we kick to a pack of players down the line when there is a free player on the outside. Why do we go straight down for a 50/50 chance?”

The answer is that there is not the same premium on possession as there is in other sports. In AFL, teams that win most of the ball and trap it in their forward line invariably kick winning scores. Get the ball up the line to a tall target with smaller players flooding underneath. That is where Rowe needs to be. Calm in the chaos because there is a method to their madness.

Are Gaelic football and Australian Rules closely related? The common assumption is that they are because Australian scouts comb talent here and the international Rules series play a hybrid version. The truth is no, not really. For all the similarities there are significantly more differences. Historians have discredited the idea that the sport is an offspring of the Irish game. Successful transfers are rarely slick. One is like rugby union, the other rugby league.

“I back my game knowledge now,” explains Rowe. “Before it was constant hesitating. Once you do that you are missing everything. You get feedback on absolutely everything here. If you feel like you are just a step too far to the left, you can overthink it. I need to use my own instincts built up from training. It is also about voice. That is so important because it is such a physical game.

“You need your teammates around you to let you know what is going on.”

That physicality is considerable. The injury rates in the league remain a concern. Compromised contact hours and shorter pre-seasons inevitably take a toll. In a training session before their qualifying final against Brisbane, Rowe took a bang on her wrist in training. She was sent for an X-ray, nothing came up and she played, finishing with twelve disposals, a mark and two tackles.

After their loss it still felt painful. Another scan was ordered. It turns out she played with a fractured wrist.

vikki-wall-celebrates-with-team-mates-after-the-game Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

That defeat brought an end to her fourth campaign Down Under. She is one of 14 Irish players on an AFLW list this year and more will soon follow. This week Meath manager Eamonn Murray bemoaned the upcoming loss of Vikki Wall. In doing so he also took aim at AFLW as a spectacle: “I don’t know why you’d want to play that sport because it’s dreadful stuff to watch. I can’t understand it. There’s no skill at all,” he told RTE. 

While that attracted most of the attention, it was his subsequent comments that could light a fire. Murray went on to offer their near-rivals ample ammunition for the season ahead. 

“It’s not good, far from it, and I think if any of you check, the players coming back, the Sinead Goldricks or the Lauren Magees or any of them, they don’t exactly set the world on fire when they come back over here,” he said.

“They’re not going to win the championship for any team.”

Goldrick will line out for Melbourne on Saturday in the Grand Final. She is a seven-time All-Star, three-time All-Ireland winner and a likely candidate to be afforded the latitude to play for her county this year despite the new AFLW season start dates. In 2021 her season was interrupted after a hamstring tendon tear. Magee is also on the club’s list. 

tempers-flair-between-sinead-goldrick-and-aoibheann-leahy Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Murray was at the helm for one of the greatest stories of the Irish sporting year and is fully entitled to his opinion. Everyone has different sporting preferences. At the same time, distant eyes often leave with a distorted view. For Rowe, AFL is best observed as a standalone sport rather than a similar one. The same household? They are not even in the same neighbourhood.

“Irish people watch it and think it should be as clean as Gaelic football. It is a contact sport. It is like saying touch rugby is the same as full contact. It is completely different. We know the similarities, but they are completely different. Of course, you won’t come back a better Gaelic footballer. Wherever you invest your energy it will flow. But you will be a better athlete.

“They are very different games with some similarities. A different mindset. A different culture. There is a bigger picture here. It is a professional environment where you will develop as a person on and off the field.”

Irish players do bring a unique skill-set. A give and go, flat out tendency. When Rowe plays with Aishling Sheridan, the pair consistently link up because they understand each other. When she plays against an Irish opponent, like Mayo’s Niamh Kelly during their round six game against West Coast Eagles, they end up moving away from the game’s typical formations and following each other.

Lining out against the Dees and Goldrick will be Clare native Ailish Considine. The former Premiership winner is set to play in her third Grand Final with Adelaide. They have also won the most games in competition history, just one ahead of Melbourne.

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“Always and ever, my perspective on girls leaving their county to go out and pursue Australian football is that they would be crazy not to,” she says.

“As women in sport, we don’t have that many opportunities to play professional sport. In Ireland, we give up everything. 11 months of the year, club and county. It costs money and time. It is an incredible opportunity. The chance to play professional sport. It is a dream of mine. 

“As a female I never thought that would happen to me. Of course, you understand the frustration and disappointment when counties lose big players from their squad but at the end of the day, it is not a career. AFLW will be. It will be a fully professional sport in the next five years.

“AFLW is the highest level a lot of us can aspire to as a Gaelic footballer. Soccer then I suppose. Look at the women’s rugby team. They are not professional. They do not get paid for what they do. Beyond that, there aren’t too many options for girls like me who grew up in the country playing football or Camogie.”

ailish-considine Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Rising standards and the recent travel difficulty mean the feared flood of LGFA players to Australia will likely be more of a trickle. Some clubs are now of the view that a year in the VFL, or reserve league, would be required before a player steps up to senior level. 

“When I look at the standard now and me in 2019 when I first came out, I wouldn’t make any squad right now as the player I was back then,” admits Considine.

“The standard has just gone through the roof. Fitness, strength, and skills have improved so quickly.

“The talent is there when it comes to younger Australian girls now. Those pathways are established. It is a tough ask for anyone who hasn’t played and to come out and go to the top.”

For the select few, AFL will always offer what the GAA cannot: An opportunity to experience professional sport and all its related benefits. Throw in the alluring lifestyle and favourable climate and the attraction should be obvious. Despite any complaints, the Irish down under will progress with the same attitude that saw the likes of Goldrick and Considine reach Saturday’s grand stage.

Drive on. All in.  

The AFLW Grand Final between Adelaide Crows and Melbourne takes place on Saturday at 3.30am Irish time. 

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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