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No more best of both worlds for Irish AFLW stars as most opt against inter-county

A change of timing to the Australian season means both codes can no longer be balanced as easily.

Mayo team-mates Niamh Kelly (West Coast Eagles) and Sarah Rowe (Collingwood) facing off in 2020.
Mayo team-mates Niamh Kelly (West Coast Eagles) and Sarah Rowe (Collingwood) facing off in 2020.
Image: AAP/PA Images

Updated May 10th 2022, 8:07 PM

THERE WERE SEVERAL glaring omissions when the Mayo championship panel was announced last week.

No Sarah Rowe. No Niamh and Grace Kelly. No Aileen Gilroy.

Rachel Kearns was the only Green and Red player to have featured in the 2022 Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW] season included, with Cora Staunton long stepped away from the inter-county scene.

Gilroy, who has established herself as a real star with North Melbourne since making the move Down Under, opted out for 2021, but Rowe, the Kelly Sisters and Kearns all played central roles as Mayo reached the All-Ireland semi-final. There, they were beaten by Dublin, but it was an encouraging run for a young panel in their first year under the watchful eye of Michael Moyles.

Now, it’s looking like they’ll be tackling the 2022 championship without some of their most experienced names. First up is the Connacht final against Galway on Sunday, so we’ll see then if Rowe, Gilroy and the Kelly Sisters are fully absent.

You’d imagine they will be. All in, or nothing at all.

In recent years, many Irish AFLW players have spoken about having the best of both worlds, happily balancing their oval and round ball commitments on opposite ends of the globe. They headed to Oz for pre-season in October or November, played from January to mid-April at the latest, and the vast majority of them returned home for the business end of the league and for championship.

This year, though, the AFLW season is set to kick off in August, meaning big decisions had to be made.

While no definitive dates are set in stone Down Under, clubs are planning for pre-season in June and challenge games in July, with the campaign understood to be running until the end of November or early December.

The All-Ireland ladies football finals are set for 31 July, meaning Irish players likely have to choose between finishing out the inter-county season or presenting on time for pre-season.

vikki-wall-and-sinead-goldrick Vikki Wall and Sinead Goldrick in action in last year's All-Ireland final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Established players may be able to arrange a flexible start date with their clubs, such is understood to be the case with Sinead Goldrick who is back playing a central role with Dublin, but a full pre-season is generally required for new recruits to get up to speed.

Cork’s Erika O’Shea is in the latter boat; absent from the Rebels’ championship panel as she edges closer towards a move to North Melbourne.

Interestingly, Meath ace Vikki Wall is also on the brink of signing for the Kangaroos, but she has been involved for the Royals thus far, impressing in their Leinster championship win over Dublin at the weekend.

Lauren Magee, Goldrick’s team-mate at Melbourne, also featured in that clash, though as reported by The42, she’s on the hunt for a new AFLW club.

One interesting subplot ahead of that fixture was comments made by Meath manager Eamonn Murray, as he bemoaned the potential loss of Wall to the Australian game.

“It’s [AFLW] 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.

Former Dublin star Noelle Healy and Staunton were two who hit back at the comments, which Murray moved to clarify in an interview with The Meath Chronicle last week:

“I understand why some of the Dublin players were upset at what I said before the league final, but that certainly wasn’t my intention,” the Meath boss said.

“Look it, I’m new to this level of media scrutiny since we won the All-Ireland and I wouldn’t be as well-versed when talking to the media as some of the other managers out there. I completely mis-spoke at the last press conference. I certainly didn’t mean to cause offence, absolutely no way.

“Those players, Sinead Goldrick and Lauren Magee, are absolute legends of ladies football and they, along with players like Niamh McEvoy and Niamh Collins, are players we all aspire to emulate.

“If our girls end their careers with half the medals those Dublin girls have won, then they can count themselves very lucky and they will have had hugely successful careers.

“My point about them going to Australia is that some of the country’s best players are going over there and are getting injured. Then they are coming back home carrying injuries, which is disappointing for them.

“However, if the opportunity arises for them to travel the world, sample professional sport and enjoy that lifestyle then they are dead right to grab that chance with both hands and I wish them all the best of luck.

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aflw-lions-magpies Orla O'Dwyer has starred for Brisbane Lions. Source: AAP/PA Images

“It just goes to prove how phenomenally talented our girls are that they can go over there, adapt to a completely different sport and be the very best at it. Just look at Orla O’Dwyer picking up an All-Australia award, fair play to them.

“My only concern is ladies football here in Ireland and with Meath. I want the best for our players. I appreciate it is an opportunity of a lifetime and fair play to them, I certainly won’t be trying to put anyone off living their dream.”

While Tipperary multi-sport star O’Dwyer is back on home soil at the minute, it’s unlikely she will feature for her county this summer. The highly sought-after Brisbane player is on the comeback trail after undergoing shoulder surgery in April.

Her fellow Tipp woman, Aisling McCarthy, has remained in Australia, having informed the Premier county she will not be available this season. 

Cavan and Collingwood forward Aishling Sheridan has also stayed Down Under. Asked in an Instagram Q&A last month if she would be coming home to play for the Breffni, she noted: “I would love to yes but we don’t know when the AFLW season is due to start.”

Of the other Irish players that featured in Oz in 2022, Brid Stack has called time on her inter-county career, while Clare’s two-time Premiership winner Ailish Considine and Aine Tighe of Leitrim have both focused solely on the oval ball in recent years.

So, in total, from the 14-strong Class of 2022, there’s just three definites that are currently playing inter-county football: Kearns, Goldrick and Magee.

No more best of both worlds, with several glaring omissions expected on the Gaelic football fields of Ireland this summer.

BTL 5

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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