highs and lows

Kildare star Curley flying the flag in Grand Final after taking different route Down Under

It’s turned into much more than chasing a coveted AFLW deal for the Collingwood CrossCoder.

IT’S RATHER FITTING that it’s exactly a year since this crazy journey began.

aisling Collingwood's Kildare star Aisling Curley. Shane Barrie / Collingwood Women's. Shane Barrie / Collingwood Women's. / Collingwood Women's.

Yesterday marked 12 months to the day since Aisling Curley boarded a plane and headed for Melbourne for an Aussie Rules trial camp with coveted AFLW contracts on the line. Tomorrow, the Kildare star, who now calls the place home, will line out for Collingwood in a massive final showdown.

Curley will be flying the tricolour at Ikon Park as her Pies side face Western Bulldogs in the Victorian Football League Women’s [VFLW] — the AFLW’s second string — Grand Final.

Thing’s haven’t been straightforward by any means, but uprooting her life and making the move to the other side of the world has paid dividends for the 25-year-old, who is thoroughly enjoying life Down Under and all that goes with it.


Australia was always on the cards for Curley. Early last year, herself and a friend started talking about it; heading to Sydney on your standard working holiday. It was a question of when, not if. 

“In my mind I was always ready to go,” she tells The42. It was always in her thoughts, but life kept her firmly on home soil. Until the perfect opportunity to explore things further heightened her interest.

Without concrete plans to make any sort of a move at the time, Curley was selected as one of 11 Irish players to travel to Melbourne on a week-long CrossCoders AFLW trial camp. It was an opportunity she grabbed with both hands, despite her little-to-no contact with the oval ball beforehand.

Having represented Kildare from U12 right the way up, Curley’s background was strictly Gaelic football. She squeezed in one or two Aussie Rules training sessions beforehand but then off she went, into the unknown.

“You had probably three touches, got on the plane and went out,” she laughs now, looking back. “It definitely was a bit nerve-wrecking.

“I didn’t have any clue of what to expect; the level of football the other girls would have had, if people were training secretly or any of that kind of stuff! But it was such a good experience, I really enjoyed it.

“We were all at the same level and able to go out with open minds, not thinking anything of it. We were just super lucky to even get a chance, and we all made the most of it.”

While three signed AFLW contracts there and then, Curley fell in love with the place, the game, the way of life and everything that went hand-in-hand with that. Going home, she was fully decided that she’d be back imminently. Forget Sydney.

“When I got over here I loved Melbourne,” she explains, “the vibe, playing footie… and having access to the fact that I could potentially play AFLW, that was really exciting. I said I might as well try and do the best I could, come over and see what happened.”

curley2 Curley was named on the 2017 Team of the League. Moorefield GAA Twitter. Moorefield GAA Twitter.

With the deadline for rookie signings fast-approaching around the time of the camp, many clubs, like Collingwood, had their AFLW lists finalised. Others took “risks” signing Irish players who weren’t exactly familiar with the game, Curley continues.

“Because I was coming back over, they said if I played VFLW and got that year under my belt, I’m probably not as big of a risk then for the following year. They could help me develop and get settled into game. I took that advice and said I may as well just go for it, so that’s what I did.”

The first week of January, she packed her bags once again but this time, moved her life to the other side of the world. A new challenge awaited, as did the chance to land a coveted AFLW contract.

A fresh start, a new sport, a different focus after taking some time for herself away from the inter-county scene, and missing the Lilywhite’s 2016 All-Ireland final win. 

“I think I was kind of at the stage where I wanted to do something different,” she concedes. “Playing Gaelic football for what I felt was an such long time, I started to lose the love for the game a little bit. I just wanted to uproot myself and have a new challenge.

“I thought the idea of just going to Australia would be a big enough move for me. But after the camp then, I would have missed that competitive side of things. It was definitely something I wanted to do, to test myself and see how that would go.”

Self-admittedly the ultimate goal from the get-go was an AFLW contract, but in time, Curley’s perspective changed. We’ll get to that later, though.

Before her arrival, CrossCoders notified all of the Melbourne clubs, so when she landed, she did a few interviews and attended some training sessions. 

“It’s different than AFLW because it’s more what would fit me,” Curley adds of the VFLW scene, and the route she went down.

“It’s not professional. It was more who I thought I’d develop the most with. And that was where my decision lay. When I went to Collingwood, I felt like I was getting more out of their sessions and their environment.”

While football was sorted fairly quickly, work was next on the agenda. A UCD and IT Carlow Business Management graduate, Curley wanted to get her sponsorship locked down with her intentions set on staying more long-term.

She started out working in a café, and then secured a more permanent job three months in. Now an account manager, she’s delighted to be employed by a “great company that are willing to sponsor me”.

curley4 The Kildare woman has made a big impact at Collingwood. Shane Barrie / Collingwood Women's. Shane Barrie / Collingwood Women's. / Collingwood Women's.

“Especially being in Melbourne,” she smiles, “they’re footy-mad over here so they’re very supportive, being like, ‘Is there anything we can do to help you?’ or ‘How can we make your life easier to go down that route of playing footy?’”

She’s well aware of how lucky she is, working regular hours from Monday to Friday, which doesn’t impact training and matches.

The transition to Aussie Rules wasn’t exactly as smooth as Curley anticipated, however. Although not professional like AFLW, the VFLW programme at Collingwood is pretty much a replica with as much training done, facilities shared and the lifestyle very similar.

Adjusting to the management of training load, the care of players and the emphasis on recovery was one thing — Curley reckons that Gaelic footballers train harder here between club, college and county — but learning the game inside out was the big one. 

“I didn’t think it would be as difficult as I found it,” the Moorefield defender says, suggesting that her injury-ravaged start to life there definitely didn’t help.

“When I first started I didn’t really have an idea… you can have as much football ability but I think for me, it was getting my head right and actually being able to read and understand the game.

“Maybe it’s because of the injuries and not being involved in games as much, but it’s a different mindset playing AFL. There’s a lot of perceived pressure, you wouldn’t really get that in Gaelic football. You know where the ball is going to go whereas with AFL you really don’t know what way it’s going to go.

“Constantly having that pressure on you as well that you can get tackled or bumped… that was an adjustment straight off the bat going in and playing games, thinking you have more time than you do. Getting an understanding of playing in the midfield area too, learning forward’s running patterns and how they differ to back home.”

But everyone involved at the club, from her team-mates to staff, really helped in getting rid of her Gaelic football style and kicking out any bad habits.

“The programme that Collingwood run is great,” she smiles. “We look back on a lot of footage and they tell you what you could have done differently in situations. The girls pull me aside at training too, and they really spell it out for me.

“I think that language is something I had to get used to as well, all the terms that they use. They’d say something and I wouldn’t have a clue what they were talking about. At the start there was a lot of asking questions and trying to figure out what they meant by different things.

“It’s been good, it has been a challenge. The injuries didn’t help, it was very, very frustrating trying to get into a new sport and then having those setbacks. But overall, it’s been a really, really good experience.”

curley2 Curley represented Kildare at underage and senior level. Kildare LGFA. Kildare LGFA.

A recurring hamstring problem set the tone for the injury woes.

Early on, she didn’t have access to a gym so any injury prevention programmes she had been following back home fell by the wayside, while she threw herself into too much other bits and pieces trying to find her feet.

Curley got involved with a local Gaelic football team, so played a fair bit with them while trying to also set out her stall with the Sherrin.

“Trying to get focused fully I was doing community club footie and VFL training four times-a-week. I just wanted to get on ball, get on ball. I overloaded too much. I got that twinge in my hamstring and it kind of stuck with me throughout the season, so I was trying to manage that.”

And then a shoulder blow to add to her concerns: “That happened in a game, I overstretched my shoulder so I had to try and mind that as well. It was just kind of one thing after another, the hamstring came back then at a lot of stages through the season.”

100 per cent fit and ready for tomorrow’s showdown, it’s fair to say that Curley is well and truly enjoying her journey now. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that an AFLW deal was the be all and end all at the start, but she’s just going with the flow at the minute and happy with the path she’s on.

“I’ve moved away from the fact that I wanted to get drafted, I wanted to get signed as a rookie… I had to take that pressure off myself because I wasn’t going out and enjoying the game as much. I felt like everything would be scrutinised, and a decision would be based off me making a mistake. I had to take a step back to refocus with Penny [Cula-Reid], the head coach of the VFLW, and a few of the girls.

“I kind of had to re-evaluate, sit back and enjoy the process. It’s a great game, it’s difficult at times. I’ve definitely tried to enjoy it a bit more. Whatever happens, happens but yeah, I’ll definitely still be playing this time next year, regardless of what level that is.”

But what about home? Does she miss it? Miss football? And most importantly, her family?

“Yeah,” she frowns. “It’s one thing, I do miss my family and that but the main thing is that distance. There’s a lot of girls that would be from within Australia that come and play with Collingwood or other Melbourne clubs because they’re a higher standard. They can jump on a plane and go for a weekend away, travel back up home.

“That’s one of the major things that I would find. It’s not exactly easy for me to go home. In saying that, I did really land on my feet when I got here,” she adds, with a nod to CrossCoders, who “made the transition so much easier and put my mind at ease,” fellow graduate, Amanda McGinn, and Down’s Clara Fitzpatrick, who she knew from UCD and has been elevated to St Kilda’s AFLW list.

“There’s a lot of people over here who helped me settle and got me involved in something if I felt like I was lost or missing home. I’m so busy with work and football and all these other things that I haven’t got to miss home too much. The major thing would be the distance but even at that, it’s not a big deal. I’m loving it over here, which makes it a lot easier.”

Aisling-Curley She has starred in midfield. Shane Barrie / Collingwood FC. Shane Barrie / Collingwood FC. / Collingwood FC.

As does the massive feat of reaching the VFLW Grand final. 

With 14 wins out of 17 under their belt — including a 14-point win over Southern Saints last time out, and a 74-point victory against the Bulldogs earlier this year — Curley is well aware of how different tomorrow is going to be, but it’s a showdown she’s relishing. 

“When I first started playing with Collingwood, the end goal goal was to try and get drafted so I didn’t even think anything about getting into a final or playing in a final,” she re-iterates. “But the more training and more I’ve been involved, I felt I’ve always been playing and part of the team.

“It’s great getting into the final. It’s been about a lot more than trying to get drafted. It’s been a good season. Collingwood haven’t won a Premiership so if we do it would be a special victory for the club. That all adds to the occasion, there’s great excitement and there’s a good buzz around the camp.

“Hopefully we can push on, and play our best football on Sunday.”

And herself, of course. Hopefully number 51 can put on a glittering performance around the middle.

There’s an AFLW draft just around the corner but that’s an “afterthought,” she assures. Curley is happy living the life she’s created for herself in her new home, and simply enjoying the journey.

“Ah, I haven’t thought much about the draft,” she concludes with a smile. “I’m just making the most of it, I really am loving it.

“I’m enjoying the process, and excited to see what can come.”

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