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Giant ambitions as Eagle soars: the Irish leaders making an impact in Australia

Cora Staunton and Aisling McCarthy are important figures at GWS Giants and West Coast Eagles respectively.

AFLW Leadership-2 Source: The42/PA Images/Bernard O’Brien New Age Photography.

BEFORE AISLING MCCARTHY jetted off to an Aussie Rules rookie trial camp in Melbourne in September 2018, there was some trepidation from her family.

Her father had watched Cora Staunton’s documentary, and a small bit of fear had set in.

“This is frightening, I don’t think I want to let you go,” he told her jokingly, but there was surely some truth to the statement.

The Tipperary star relayed the story to The42 in an interview before heading off on the CrossCoders trial, and also explained how Staunton’s involvement in the AFLW had piqued her interest as the global talent agency first reached out.

“I was obviously intrigued. Even just hearing from Cora being there,” she said at the time. “There was a lot of interest with Cora’s move, and I think it’s a very interesting game.”

A little over three years later, McCarthy and Staunton are two of the biggest Irish names in the AFLW, and both vital cogs in their respective team’s leadership groups.

This, alone, speaks volumes of their impact.

***

A long way from Tipperary now, McCarthy calls Cahir home.

A two-time All-Ireland intermediate champion and 2017 Player of the Year in that grade, and also a talented club camogie player, the journey began in the picturesque town on the banks of the River Suir.

It coincided with that of good friend and long-time team-mate for club and county, Aishling Moloney.

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“Aisling, growing up, always did her talking on the pitch,” Moloney recalls. “Me and Aisling are probably the two terrible twins really.

“I miss her an awful lot playing football back home. You would miss her. I actually kind of get emotional about these things, when I start talking about her. She’s an unbelievable person, and the amount of work that she puts in behind the scenes, no one even knows.

“Sometimes people slag me about it, that Aisling’s there trying her heart out and you’re just sitting there. Aisling is just incredible.

“Even in a dressing room, her experience, the way she carries herself, her as a person in general. It’s just hard to even put into words the type of character that she is and how much she can offer to a team set-up.”

meath-v-tipperary-tg4-all-ireland-ladies-football-intermediate-championship-final McCarthy (right) with Moloney during the 2019 All-Ireland final. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

Western Bulldogs clearly saw potential in McCarthy as a result of that 2018 trial in Melbourne, and she was snapped up in the AFLW Draft that October. (She made history in August 2020 when she became the first non-Australian to move AFLW clubs, joining Mayo sister act Niamh and Grace Kelly at West Coast.)

Clare’s Ailish Considine and Yvonne Bonner of Donegal also put pen to paper after the CrossCoders camp, so McCarthy became the sixth Irish player to arrive in the league.

Laura Corrigan Duryea was the first, followed by the legendary Staunton ahead of the 2018 season and Sarah Rowe thereafter; the trend of crossing codes from ladies football set firmly in stone then.

Twenty-two Irishwomen in total have featured since the league’s inaugural campaign of 2017.

But just two have earned leadership roles in Staunton and McCarthy.

“I’d say this has definitely been part of the reason why they have been targeted in the first place,” CrossCoders co-founder and agent to several Irish players including McCarthy, Jason Hill, explains from Australia.

“While they may be junior in terms of game understanding and the like, they’re extremely experienced athletes who have got to the top of their games, which comes with a certain mindset and dedication.

“The clubs have definitely identified that within all of the Irish players here and you’re seeing as they’ve become a bigger part of set-ups, this informal leadership has started to be formalised in roles like vice-captaincy which are normally player-driven choices.”

While there are plenty of athletes with cross-code roots in leadership roles — Ashleigh Brazil (netball), Emma Kearney (cricket) and Monique Conti (basketball) are just a few who have transferred to the AFLW from the top level of another sport — there aren’t just as many international players. 

New Zealand rugby Sevens star Brook Walker is one example, but it’s a pretty exclusive group McCarthy and Staunton find themselves in. Knowing all about high performance and helping to drive the culture are key in these positions.

“Both players have grown leaps and bounds since they entered the competition and you’ve seen them become very important to their clubs,” Hill notes. “Cora has continued to deliver year after year, while Aisling has grown into a very talented midfielder who has won the respect of her peers across the competition.

aflw-giants-cats Staunton in action in 2019. Source: AAP/PA Images

“As I said, the fact that the roles they’re both in now are player-driven and decided by the group shows how well respected they are within their respective groups.

“The most disappointing thing is how much quicker this could have been if it was the men’s game – Aisling and Cora have been here for four and five years respectively but have only played 23 and 36 games each which would only be around one-and-a-half and two men’s AFL seasons. Imagine what they could be now with four or five full seasons under their belts. That being said, their development has been extraordinary.”

***

When news filtered through that McCarthy was named in West Coast Eagles’ leadership group for the 2022 season last September, Moloney didn’t even bat an eyelid.

Staunton had always been a talismanic figure with Mayo and a long-time captain of Carnacon, and transitioned into a senior role at Greater Western Sydney [GWS] Giants almost immediately, so that wasn’t a shock. But what about McCarthy?

“I really wasn’t surprised by it because she’s an unbelievable ambassador for any sport really that she she’s involved with,” Moloney says, “and any sport that she gets involved in, she always gives 110%.

“She is that grafter in the background who will go extra lengths to make herself better. She’s always trying to get better. Aisling is just an unbelievable person – and the same with Cora.

“It’s mad, the Irish girls are kind of ruling the roost over there. It’s amazing. If you look at all of them, you’d think that when they go out there that they’re so on the back foot. But you see Rachel Kearns going out this year and she’s obviously making leaps and bounds already. It’s incredible, it’s great to see the Irish doing well. No matter where they go, we love seeing our own do well.”

After pivoting into the Irish invasion, Moloney’s thoughts revert back to her friend and clubmate.

Again, she struggles to find the words to sum her up, to epitomise her qualities and personality, on and off the field. She settles for an anecdote which perhaps hits the nail on the head in terms of her leadership abilities, and brings her input full circle.

“Aisling standing in a dressing room alone would ease a team,” Moloney nods. “Even in the toughest of situations, when we’ve been in the the deepest of deepest in games, she’ll stand up in the situation and take complete control of it without even saying anything.

“She just has that aura about her that really settles as a team. She’s a real leader, she does her talking on the pitch.”

aflw-dockers-eagles McCarthy handballs in Round One of 2022. Source: AAP/PA Images

Certainly, on these shores, she leads by example in how she plays. Similarly to Staunton, but the four-time All-Ireland winner and 11-time All-Star is certainly known for being that bit more talkative on the pitch.

“I know Aish has definitely set goals for herself to be more vocal around the group since her move to the Eagles,” Hill reveals. “She is very aware they’re a young group that she wants to help drive standards and culture in, so while her number one focus will always be delivering on the pitch, she has become much more vocal.

“That has been further amplified by her injuries this year and last, as she still wants to drive value to the group with her experience.”

“While I don’t know Cora personally,” he adds, “I know she is heavily involved in bringing together the group in Sydney and driving standards. From what I’ve heard, she was always very vocal on the pitch though.”

***

The oldest AFLW player in the competition’s history, Staunton’s journey through her adopted sport is well documented at this stage.

What began as a one-season adventure has turned into a glittering five-year (and counting) career, the 40-year-old one of Al McConnell’s right-hand women at the club.

Somehow, someway, she keeps getting better and continues to hit new heights on the goal-scoring front each and every season, and fired a final-quarter hattrick in Saturday’s defeat to the Richmond Tigers.

“I just love playing the game,” she told AFLW journalist Sarah Black in January, explaining why she kept extending her stay Down Under. “It’s a relatively new sport for me, and the challenge of wanting to get better all the time.

“I came from a sport where I was at the top of my game for a number of years, and then you come here and you’re at the bottom of the ladder and you just want to improve.

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“It’s also the love for this club,” she added. “I can’t put into words what this club means, it’s a very special place. From the first day I walked in, I felt that family and sense of belonging, whether that’s running into one of the men’s players or staff, you just feel the club’s special.

“We’re led by a very special man as well, he’s a coach you want to play well for and want to achieve something for him, because of all the effort and time he puts into the club.”

That goes both ways.

Having had her membership renewed in the Giants’ leadership crew ahead of this season, McConnell smiled: “Cora has been in this group before, but she thoroughly deserves her selection as a key member of our side both on and off the field.”

cora-staunton Staunton during the 2017 All-Ireland final, her last game in the Green and Red. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In that same interview with Black, Staunton touched on the fact that her age doesn’t faze her. While she’s held in extremely high regard and respected by one and all at GWS, she’s certainly no exception when it comes to the wrath of her team-mates.

“My age, the fact I’m Irish, and the weather when it’s raining: those are the three I hear quite a bit,” she laughed. “To be honest, it flies over my head most of the time, it’s more the girls around the club who like to rip into me and slag me.

“I keep off social media mostly, and age is just a number. I really don’t take any notice, once I’m playing and training and going hard and still trying to out-sprint the younger ones, then I feel I’m in a good place. Thankfully my body is holding up quite well and I rarely miss training, so I can still feel I can compete at the top level.”

McCarthy certainly can too, and there’s no doubt that she will for quite some time to some. A fractured wrist sustained last month has ruled her out for the remainder of the season, but the 26-year-old remains firmly involved in a non-playing capacity.

Speaking to TG4 before the setback, she gave good insight into her new job this season.

And certainly echoed Moloney’s words.

“The leadership role has empowered me, as a player, and enables me to help the younger girls. I take a lot of confidence in things like that, and I’m really enjoying my time here. It is an honour.

“I guess I probably would be a leader in the way I play, I never give up, I work hard and things like that. I don’t often say a whole pile, we have a lot of voices in the changing room and around the field that can do that.

“It was just really nice that it was my peers and my team-mates that voted me into the leadership group. It has given me confidence in my ability to speak up when it’s needed and be that pathway between the players and the coaches as well. I’m learning a lot.

“We do some tutorials with Glenn Stuart, he’s the head of S&C at West Coast Eagles and he’s been in the All Blacks camp for a couple of weeks before as well, so I’m learning a lot about leadership in general and what it is, and all the different things that it involves.

ella-moore-with-aishling-moloney-aisling-mccarthy-caral-casey-and-emma-buckley Moloney (9) and McCarthy (behind her) playing camogie for Cahir in their All-Ireland intermediate winning year of 2016. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“I’m learning a lot about that and I can take it back to Gaelic and that. It’s been a really good opportunity and it does instill a lot of confidence in me when I go out and play football, that I have the backing of my peers too.”

***

McCarthy and Staunton have both been consistently brilliant, and massive players for their respective clubs over the past few seasons.

While their teams have struggled, they’ve undoubtedly been two of the biggest Irish success stories in the AFLW, and it’s fitting that their journeys are forever intertwined.

Given the fact that Staunton’s success played a part in McCarthy’s initial interest, it’s nice to see them both held in similar regard, and in the same kind of role a few short years on.

“You can tell that Cora has had a heavy influence on Aish and her upbringing within sport,” Hill concludes. “Just by watching the two of them, side by side, you can see a lot of similarities from the way they move through to how they execute on the pitch.

“I’d say that is the next iteration of Aisling McCarthy – the leader. You can tell, even at a young age, that she has been in that role for Tipperary and she looks to be thriving in a more official leadership position out West here in Australia.

“I’d say whatever sport she continues with will see her as a future captain of her club or county.”

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Emma Duffy

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