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AFLW has 'potential to damage' ladies football and players should have to pick one or the other - Mayo boss

Dublin manager Mick Bohan also said he has ‘mixed feelings’ towards the league 18 Irishwomen will play in this spring.

Mayo boss Peter Leahy.
Mayo boss Peter Leahy.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

AFTER LOSING FOUR of his star players to Aussie Rules, Mayo boss Peter Leahy has warned against promotion of the league Down Under that “has the potential to damage” ladies football “quite extensively” with 18 Irishwomen playing there this spring.

Star forward Sarah Rowe has returned to Collingwood for a second stint, while sisters Grace and Niamh Kelly and midfielder Aileen Gilroy have landed deals with West Coast Eagles and North Melbourne respectively for the fourth season of the Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW].

11 counties will be represented across 11 clubs, and with the Australian league culminating in the Grand Final on 18 April, most Irish players will return for inter-county championship action. 

But Leahy believes that there should be a rule that they pick one or the other. If they play AFLW, they should not be able to represent their county in the same year, he says.

“We are the ones that are most affected but not because of that,” the Green and Red manager said at the Lidl Ladies National Football League launch yesterday.

I think we’re missing out on an opportunity in the LGFA. I think we’re promoting a game that has the potential to damage us quite extensively, to be quite honest with you, as in our National League will become non-existent if, from what I think, there could be 25-plus gone next year and a longer league out there.

“I think there’s a simple solution here. All my girls came to me beforehand, before they signed the contract and asked me what the situation is. Because there’s no regulations involved in the LGFA, I have to give them a pat on the back. This is an opportunity for any young girl. I always try to treat them like they’re my daughter and if my daughter came and asked me I’d say, ‘Go, enjoy it.’

But there needs to be a different situation. I believe there should be a rule that says they can’t come back and play in the same year. If they go to Australia and play there until April, they shouldn’t be allowed to play championship here. If that was the situation not one of our four players would have gone.

“You’re coming from a professional game back into an amateur game, I don’t believe you should be able to play both in the same season.”

“And then the AFL has to secure them for a year,” he added. “Instead of giving them silly contracts of $15k and $18k and $20k which gets you nowhere in Australia… some of them are working as well, then the AFLW has to financially secure them for a full year.

“Do you think the AFLW is going to come looking for them for a year? Or if they do they’ll have to take care of them properly. If you had that situation then the only people going would be those who want to take a year out and go to Australia.”

aflw-magpies-kangaroos Sarah Rowe has starred for Collingwood. Source: AAP/PA Images

Cavan native Laura Corrigan Duryea was the first Irish person to fly the flag in season one before four-time All-Ireland winner Cora Staunton crossed codes with a high-profile move ahead of 2018.

Last year, Clare’s Ailish Considine triumphed with Adelaide Crows, while Donegal star Yvonne Bonner, Tipperary’s Aisling McCarthy and Mayo ace Rowe all joined Staunton Down Under.

With the numbers more than tripling ahead of the 2020 season, concerns have been raised on these shores — and Leahy has highlighted those.

“There’s two elements here; one being the game that we love so much,” he continued.

“If I’m being honest, I think the women’s AFL is a terrible game. It is shocking. Sarah [Rowe] did not come back a better footballer. She’s gone out this year with a Gaelic football and trains all the time with it, she knows the craic now.

It is not good for our game, which is a far superior game. The girls far prefer playing it. I don’t know one player who’s come back and said, ‘I’d prefer to be playing AFL’. They’re doing it for the experience and therefore they should be properly taken care of.

“The way to do that is to put AFL clubs under pressure and do that by saying, ‘If you want our player you have to give them a full year’s contract’. Now I know they’ll be taken care of.”

Leahy continued: “From the LGFA’s point of view, our National League is going to be destroyed. You’ve a big sponsor like Lidl for example. Are they going to want to continue to sponsor a National League without 25 stars?

“Yes, we’re creating more stars and that’s what we use the league for, to try to find a star. But four of our starting six forwards from the All-Ireland semi-final are gone. I don’t have them until they come back and I don’t know when, how or if they’ll come back. So that’s created a whole new scenario.

“And then, while they’re away we’re developing players in their positions, I create another six players for the league and I have created a new full-forward and then they come back. What’s that going to do to your team? It’s up to me to manage that but it does become a problem if you’re creating stop-gaps only for another player to come back in. We’re creating problems with the way it is now.

“If you knew that no one is coming back it’s a lot easier on everyone. We’re just talking about them sitting out the whole season. I think we need to do something about it and do it now.”

peter-leahy-talks-to-the-team Leahy with his Mayo side. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Leahy noted that his players say that there’s nothing in their Australian set-ups that they’re not getting with Mayo. 

“The only difference is numbers,” he added. “They might have four physios or S&C professionals. They can just walk in and train all day but they say there’s not one item or one thing they’re not getting playing here at home. 

What really annoys me more than anything else is the promotion of it. I’m saying this because I love the game. We’ve a great sport, the best product in Irish sport right now. We’ve a faster, more skilful game than most other games and we just can’t afford to allow anything interrupt that.

“It is being diluted and I understand that. It’s the first time opportunities like this have been thrown at our players and I totally understand any of them going. It’s naturally happened. But it’s the responsibility of all of us who love the sport, to make sure that this isn’t idolised, or put on a pedestal, these girls going away.

“Of course we wish them well and want to see them doing well. I’ll tune into Collingwood at the weekend, but I genuinely believe if we can change our rules to make it one or other, and give them a clap on the back if they go for the full year round and support them 100% but not, ‘Will we, won’t we.’ It’s very unfair to people left at home.”

Westmeath native Leahy also confirmed that rising midfielder and star basketball player Dayna Finn is being flown home for games while doing her Erasmus in Valencia, while star defender Danielle Caldwell will also commute from Manchester where she is studying physiotherapy.

Roisin Flynn is still recovering from a cruciate injury and while Leahy has brought in four minors he only has “about 18 or 19 fit players” for their league opener against Donegal on Sunday.

Elsewhere, Dublin manager Mick Bohan says he has “mixed feelings” towards the Australian league in which 18 Irishwomen will play in this spring. 

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Dublin’s six-time All-Star Sinéad Goldrick and key forward Niamh McEvoy are currently preparing to line out for Melbourne FC in the fourth season of the AFLW.

“It’s a strange one,” the Clontarf man said. “When that whole scenario started that they’re actually going to bring an Irish athlete out and pay them as a professional footballer for five or six months, part of you feels isn’t it actually great because it’s actually lifting the status of your female athletes.

“Then, if the whole thing changes and turns into a situation like the lads and the season doesn’t just become a [set] period of time, it becomes a full season; then all of a sudden you’ve lost your players, and we’ve lost some of our best players. That obviously becomes a big-hitter, and changes the way you look at it completely.

mc g McEvoy and Goldrick. Source: Melbourne FC.

“I know after speaking to the girls, neither of them had taken a year out of inter-county football since the time that they had got involved, and this was their year out essentially, while still making themselves available to play in the premier competition. 

No more than when Leah Caffrey or Laura McGinley went travelling, you have to say, ‘Fire ahead. Just go, if it’s the right thing for you.’

“I certainly know in Goldie’s situation she struggled with a tendinopathy injury over the last number of years and she wanted to see if she could beat that by training as a professional athlete on a daily basis,” he added. “She came home at Christmas and she said that for the first time, she’s training without that pain.

“As she said herself, she doesn’t know if that’s the training, if it’s the extra gym, or the fact that she’s not actually sitting down all day. All those things will be found out in good time. So I have mixed feelings on it.”

Bohan stresses that the “door is open” for Goldrick and McEvoy, who handled their move exactly how he’d want them to.

“I certainly know the way they went about it, how open they were with me and the way then they kept it tight for a period of the summer, I thought they dealt with it really well,” he continued.

I’d have a lot of respect for that because it wouldn’t have served us well if that message was out there over the summer. Even though they obviously knew it, their families knew it and I knew it, but it didn’t get out. That was important to us.

“Now, I think they start their competition this weekend. I’m obviously hoping they don’t get broken up, though Goldie tends to break up more than she gets broken up! Look, we’ll be watching it with interest over the coming weeks no more than they’ll be zooming in on us to see how things are going here. 

“It was funny actually even after we had a challenge against Donegal, in the text group we could see the women from yonder pool throwing in their tuppence. They wanted to know everything. There you go, all’s good.”

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Emma Duffy

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