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Insulted, ignored, persevering: AFL is home to great Irish sporting stories

The 2022 AFL season kicks off on Wednesday with 11 Irish players involved.

Image: AAP/PA Images

THEY WERE THE days of their lives. At least that is what his father often tells him. Regularly they gather and reminisce about that famous summer. In 2014, Darragh Joyce captained Kilkenny to All-Ireland minor glory against a Limerick team that included Sean Finn, Cian Lynch, Barry Nash, Peter Casey and Seamus Flanagan.

Afterwards, Tipperary and Kilkenny played out a thrilling draw in the senior final. Still giddy from success, a few weeks later Joyce and his team-mates boarded the bus to Dublin and journeyed to Hill 16. From there he watched his older brother Kieran, who didn’t play the first day, put in a man-of-the-match performance as the Cats claimed the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

darragh-joyce-lifts-the-cup Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Darragh won a minor title with the club in 2013.  A year later his older brothers, Kieran and Conor, played for Rower-Inistioge as they won the All-Ireland intermediate championship in Croke Park. On the rise and triumphant in the heartland of hurling. All the road signs pointed one way. A path firmly mapped out.

Until he veered off course. Fast forward two years. Joyce has accepted a rookie contract with AFL outfit St Kilda. Pursing a chance as a professional athlete in a world he knew little about. He landed and found himself scrambling to get organised. The teenager agonised over the decision, discussing it at length with local legends like Eddie Brennan.

This was a double-barrelled transition, to a new sport and a new realm. Any presumptions about the pervasive luxuries of a professional environment quickly proved wide of the mark. Routinely, the Irish Down Under point at our proximity to the UK football scene as the cause of so much misconception. The average salary in the AFL for an established player is around €240,000. The average in the Premier League is 10 times that. These planets are in separate solar systems.

Joyce had to figure it all out for himself. Before he’d even received his first paycheck, he had to organise a loan so he could buy a second-hand car. Imagine the pain when his new pride and joy broke down with engine issues shortly after. 

In every club, the Irish recruit starts at the bottom of the ladder. Number 45 on a list of 44. The smallest fish in a sizeable pond.

At the start, Joyce was mistakenly called ‘Daryl’ more than once and the centre of attention as the Irish novelty. A few months in and he was dropped. Not from the seniors, from the reserves. Down to a league he scarily knew existed. It doesn’t anymore. The development league. ‘Two’s twos.’

darragh-joyce Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Togging out at 10 in the morning to play as a curtain-raiser for the VFL as dogwalkers and recoiling Saturday night partygoers passed by obliviously.   

Every day, Joyce would trek home from training. On the way, he’d pass a travel agent. Quickly he developed a routine. Head in and the same refrain: ‘I was just wondering how much flights to Ireland are today? Two routes loomed large on his horizon. Fight or flight. Returning home was the understandable one. The route the majority would opt for.

Joyce elected for a different approach. He dug in. Persevered. Persisted. Transformed his body and his attitude. Bottled all his frustration. As a key defender, he will never have 30 possessions. It is about shutting your opposite man out. Daily physicality and tenacity. He started embracing rather than dreading every weight and skin fold test. 88kg of puppy fat became 96kg of sheer brawn. All the while, channelling any slight to create an arsenal of aggression, unleashed in every single practice match.  

“Around 2018 he wasn’t getting a look, but I always found him a really tough opponent and defender,” recalls star AFL goalkicker Joshua Bruce. Bruce has 150 AFL appearances. He was St Kilda’s leading goalkicker in 2015 and the Western Bulldogs’ leading goalkicker in 2021. He and Joyce were regular training opponents. 

“His bodywork and strength and speed were really good for that lockdown defender role. It felt like he obviously still needed to work on his game sense, but I kept telling the coaches that he was a bloody hard match-up. I think I kept using the phrase ‘best defender we’ve got’ to force it home.”

Eventually, the message registered with the selection committee and they took his advice on board. Darragh Joyce debuted in July 2018.  

“Turns out they actually listened and did give him a few games,” says Bruce. “I think physically he’s bloody annoying to play on which is always a good sign as a key defender!”

afl-demons-saints Source: AAP/PA Images

Since then, Joyce has played 10 games for the club. He was set for his first prolonged stint in the first team last year until fate dealt another cruel blow. Three concussions in 12 months and a Covid contact scare after attending a rugby international severely hampered his campaign. Despite serious interest from one other club, he signed a new deal with the Melbourne outfit ahead of a crucial 2022. 

St Kilda are looking to kick on from a disappointing season and have recruited another Irishman to help them do it. Cavan native Nicholas Walsh was recently appointed high-performance manager of the club. The same Walsh that was once told he wasn’t capable of coaching football because he was Irish and wouldn’t understand the technicalities of the game.

These are just some of the remarkable Irish in Australia yarns. In some ways, it seems a shame they aren’t given due recognition. Coverage closer to home struggles to scratch the surface. Basic details like statistics, achievements or the clubs they play for are often wrong. Not everyone opts for the Stuart Magee approach and actually calls up to correct the record.

As a child, Magee and his family boarded a boat in Belfast and docked in Williamstown weeks later. He went on to amass 216 appearances for South Melbourne and Footscray. So, you can imagine his reaction when he opened the paper to read about Zach Tuohy’s big milestone.

“It said, ‘The second Irishman after Jim Stynes to reach that milestone,’” Magee recalled last year.

“We got the paper here and I was looking at it thinking, ‘I came over in a boat. I lived in a hostel, and we put up with some of the worst things. I travelled all over Melbourne to play. Do I not count?’

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“What happened to me? That is why I rang the bloke from the paper. I said, ‘my name is Stuart Magee, I was born in Belfast in 1952. I travelled to Australia and played for South Melbourne. I captained the Western Bulldogs.’”

For the current crop Down Under, the scars from how the media treated Conor McKenna after his Covid case still linger. And in Ireland, such missteps are understandable. Australia is, after all, on the other side of the globe. Gaelic football and AFL are similar sports but also, totally different. It is a near-impossible task to understand a different sporting history and contextualise foreign achievements within that sphere.

zach-tuohy Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

65 GAA converts have made the move since Sean Wight in 1982. Five of them have played over 150 games. The vast majority return after a few years. Still, recruiters maintain that it is a promising strike rate when compared to the AFL draft. There any prospect picked outside the top 20 is doing extremely well to come anywhere close to 100 games. Outside of the top 50 picks, the average appearance is less than 50.

At the end of last year, Luke Towey and Stefan Okunbor’s stints with the Gold Coast Suns and Geelong respectively came to an end. Mark Keane and Anton Tohill voluntarily elected to leave Collingwood and return home. Oisin Mullin also turned down the opportunity to join Geelong.

Any fears that this would prompt clubs to reconsider Irish recruitment have proven to be ill-founded. Clubs continue to utilise a rich and varied scouting network. Discussions about a return of the combine, perhaps in a joint capacity for males and females, are ongoing. A few more will make the move over the next few years and attempt to scale an arduous mountain.  

This season, Joyce, Hawthorn’s rejuvenated Conor Nash, Sydney Swans stalwart Colin O’Riordan and Brisbane flyer James Madden will all hope for regular game time. Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor aspire to be leading lights as Geelong chase an elusive Premiership. Callum Brown looks to kick on with GWS Giants. Sydney’s Barry O’Connor and Essendon’s Cian McBride want to debut and put the chaos of two Covid-compromised years behind them. At Brisbane, Deividas Uosis will continue his development. Fionn O’Hara is just starting out on his career with Hawthorn.  

All striving to defy the odds and make their mark. Continuing to produce chapters in a great Irish sporting story. 

Ireland internationals Devin Toner and Lindsay Peat were our guests for The Front Row’s special live event, in partnership with Guinness, this week. The panel chats through Ireland’s championship chances ahead of the final round of Guinness Six Nations matches, and members of the Emerald Warriors – Ireland’s first LGBT+ inclusive rugby team – also join us to talk about breaking down barriers in rugby. Click here to subscribe or listen below:


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Maurice Brosnan

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