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'It was a once in a lifetime opportunity' - AFL dreams put on hold for 4 young GAA players

Four GAA players were due to have trials in Australia next month but they’ve been postponed.

Oisin Mullen, Ultan Kelm, Frank Irwin and Cillian Rouine.
Oisin Mullen, Ultan Kelm, Frank Irwin and Cillian Rouine.
Image: Inpho

ON ST PATRICK’S Day the news the quartet had been expecting came through.

Promising young GAA players Oisin Mullin, Frank Irwin, Ultan Kelm and Cillian Rouine were due to travel to Australia next month to undergo trials in front of AFL recruiters.

Last Tuesday, the AFL got in touch to say the trip was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Over the weekend, the Australian Rules season was put on ice indefinitely.

Mayo pair Mullin and Irwin, plus Fermanagh and Clare defenders Kelm and Rouine, were an exclusive group of four players selected from a crop of 20 at the AFL Europe Combine in UCD last December.

“It was very disappointing,” Kelm tells The42. ”It was a date I’d been building towards for a while since I found out I’d been selected to go over. I was training away with Fermanagh as well but the main focus was getting over to Australia.

“When it was cancelled I was definitely disappointed but when the whole thing with the coronavirus had been building, I always had it in the back of my head that there was a chance it could be cancelled. When the news did come it wasn’t a major shock.”

Like Kelm, Rouine is well aware of the bigger picture.

“I was really looking forward to it and it was a great opportunity,” he says. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity almost but for now there’s bigger issues on everybody’s mind and it’s completely understandable.”

19-year-old Mullin, who shone in his debut league campaign with the Mayo senior side this season, clocked impressive times in the speed, agility and standing jump categories at the combine and was thought to be the leading candidate to get signed by an AFL club. 

Kelm (20) is already a regular with Fermanagh under Ryan McMenamin, while Irwin (17) – Mayo minor star in 2019 – and Clare senior panellist Rouine (18) have shone in recent underage campaigns for their respective counties. 

Kerry’s Deividas Uosis, who topped the spring category at the same combine, has already been signed by Brisbane Lions on a two-year deal.

“It was a serious weekend,” recalls Rouine. “You were mixing with some of the most elite, athletic lads in Ireland around 19, 20 years-old. It was an unreal experience, just making friends and learning things off each other.”

ultan-kelm Kelm in action against Monaghan last summer in the All-Ireland SFC qualifiers. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It was, something completely different to what I’m used to,” adds Kelm. “To get the call when I was asked to come down to the combine and the few skills sessions we had before I was delighted and it was everything I wanted to do.

“So when I did put so much work in about getting good at the skills and working on the physical aspect of the combine and learning about the game, to get selected was a privilege. Because you’re there with 20 of the best young players in Ireland. To be one of four picked was massive.”

The quartet were due to travel to Melbourne to visit and train with a number of AFL clubs, including Geelong, Richmond and Essendon. They were also set to link up with the U17 All-Australian Academy which is comprised of the best players in the country at that age group. 

Last April the AFL ran similar trials for four players as Ross McQuillan and Luke Towey subsequently secured rookie contracts with Essendon and Gold Coast respectively.

While they’ll be focusing on their studies and staying in shape over the coming weeks, Kelm and Rouine are hopeful they’ll get another crack at the AFL.

“I’ve a few Sherrins knocking around the house here,” says Helm. “I kind of always have one in my hands. This break now is giving me a bit of a chance to get working on it a bit more and get a more used to the skills.”

oisin-mullin-and-kevin-mcmanamon Mullin tackles Kevin McManamon during the league earlier this year. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

Kelm is an architectural engineering student in Queen’s University Belfast, while Rouine is studying primary school teaching at Mary I in Limerick. Both first years, they’re now based at home and will complete their modules online while they train away remotely with their county sides. 

“I’ve assembled something along the lines of a gym in the shed of the house so I’m just tipping away in there,” explains Kelm.

“Obviously with the running you don’t need much, you can do it anywhere so I’ll always have something to do.” 

The AFL traditionally bring out two more male Irish prospects in September to test at the NAB AFL Draft Combine. Donegal’s Oisin Gallen and Meath’s Cian McBride travelled Down Under last year. McBride signed with Essendon while Gallen is believed to be weighing up an offer. 

There may be an opportunity for Kelm, Rouine, Mullin and Irwin to fly out late this year but the worldwide outbreak of Covid-19 means things are on hold for the moment.

“They haven’t set any dates to be honest and I’m not sure what the plans for the future are,” says the Banner prospect.

“It’s just a pity it was called off but right now we just have to stay fit and healthy, keep focusing on our studies here and keep playing football whenever GAA gets going again.

“I wouldn’t mind another shot at the AFL it if it came.”

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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