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'It was clear to see that they were very interested in the Irish players from the get-go'

Monaghan midfielder Muireann Atkinson was one of 11 Irish players on an AFLW trial in Melbourne late last year.

“I GOT AN email saying, ‘Congrats, you’re invited to Australia’ and I just went with it,” Muireann Atkinson grins. 

Gourmet Food Parlour 2019 HEC Ladies Football Championship Launch Monaghan and DCU midfielder Muireann Atkinson. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

The Monaghan midfielder was one of 11 Irish hopefuls who went to Melbourne in September on an intensive AFLW trial as part of the Cross Coders programme.

We know now that three ladies footballers signed professional contracts ahead of the 2019 season: Tipperary’s Aisling McCarthy penned a deal with reigning champions the Western Bulldogs, Donegal ace Yvonne Bonner joined Greater Western Sydney Giants and Adelaide Crows secured the services of Clare’s Ailish Considine. 

But all of these players well and truly went into the unknown as they met up at Dublin Airport before embarking on the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It was a great experience to get a taste of the professional lifestyle,” Atkinson said at the launch of the Gourmet Food Parlour HEC Ladies Football Championships yesterday.

“We all arrived to the airport and we were all a bit confused at what we were doing. Nobody really told us what we were in for.

“We had two weeks over there. The first five or six days were quite intense. Straight off the plane, we went to the training facilities and did athletic testing for two days. Then they introduced me to an AFL oval ball for the first time, kicked it about for a while.”

The group of 18 Cross Coders: ladies footballers and camógs, top-class rugby, netball and NFL players from England, Wales, France Canada, the USA and Fiji, faced a second-tier VFLW side after a few days, and hockied them, as Atkinson says.

“A group of 18 players who hadn’t played a game before,” she reflects. “It was clear to see that they were very interested in the Irish players from the get-go.

“It’s the most transferable sport to AFL. A lot of the handball players and netball players struggled with the kicking whereas it came quite easy to us. Also, the professionalism of ladies football has gotten so good that we surprised them in terms of our athletic ability.

“It’s not far behind AFL at all. There’s not much difference in our set-up to their set-up at the top level. It was interesting to see that, and nice to get a taste for different top-class facilities in Australia.”

The experience itself was priceless for the DCU PE and Biology Teaching student. She shared a room with a Welsh netball player and learned from some of the most elite in their respective sports around the world.

“It was interesting to see all the different sports people, what they were good at. Everybody had different strengths,” she continues.

“They’re all real athletes and everyone was just mad to compete and mad to impress. It was kind of a dog-eat-dog environment at times but it was really, really enjoyable.”

With so many men footballers and the likes of 11-time All-Star Cora Staunton showing that the skills from Gaelic games are easily transferable, there was a lot more eyes on the Irish contingent. 

“There was a raised interest in the Gaelic players and Moll [Tipperary's Mary Ryan] as well, the camogie player,” she adds. “They seen it work before. In the men’s game a right few went over, that’s why they were looking at us closely.

“People were kind of saying, how could a camogie player transfer into AFL, but there’s different positions. There’s a position called the ‘crumber’ where they pick up the crumbs. The camogie players are so used to getting into a position for picking up a ball.

“There’s basketball players that have made it too. I think if any sportsperson applies themselves to a new sport, they’re going to do well. They just have a natural knack to it.”

While 22-year-old Atkinson didn’t strike a deal this time around, timing wouldn’t have been the best with two years of college degree left to complete.

That said, she’d love to “get another whack at it” in a few years time.

“I would consider it,” she explains. “I definitely wouldn’t say I love the AFL sport, Gaelic in my opinion is a better sport. It’s more skillful, you’ve more vision in total in the sport.

Muireann Atkinson Atkinson lining out with Monaghan in 2014. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“It’s just the professional lifestyle that attracts me to it, and I think it would attract most ladies footballers. You know, you’re getting paid to play which is class. It’s a full-time job, it’s what you enjoy doing and it gives you a chance to reach your full, max potential as well.”

There was some interest from teams over there, particularly new ones given the fact that there’s four set to be added in the 2020 season. 

“West Coast Eagles and St Kilda’s were in contact with me. Four new teams requires nearly 150 new players so I’m sure I’m not the only one that has been contacted, they’re going to be poaching a lot of ladies footballers.

“They feel that when a player goes over there, they need three or four years to develop. You can’t just pick it up in a year, even though Cora [Staunton] and the girls have done quite well. A lot of the AFL ones are afraid that the ladies’ game is advancing too fast and they’re not ready for it. 

“Those teams that have contacted me, in their opinion feel that they’re actually not ready to be introduced because the skill level isn’t at a good enough standard yet. By introducing more teams, there’ll be more inexperienced players playing it which isn’t going to raise the game. 

“There’s definitely over 10 or 11 professional teams over there and they don’t have the talent pool in Australia to fill it. That’s why they’re looking elsewhere, like Ireland to dip into it. I would be interested in it. Every ladies footballer, I think, would be, just to get a taste of it.”

She’s good friends with Mayo star Sarah Rowe, who’s impressed since inking a deal with Collingwood. The Kilmoremoy forward scored two goals in last weekend’s pre-season clash, while McCarthy, Bonner and Considine have been settling into life nicely Down Under too.

“I’d be in contact with a few of them,” Atkinson notes. “They’re having a great time and they’re all, I feel, going to have a big impact on the game over there as well.

“I seen Sarah scored two goals and she got a PB in the 2km test with an outrageous time. I’d say they’re very impressed with the professional mindset the girls have and what they bring to it. They’d bring a different aspect to the game in terms of vision, they’d see a play happening before it actually happens.

rowe Rowe impressed in her first run-out while McCarthy was on the opposing team. Source: Collingwood FC/Luke Henry.

“They seem to be loving the professional lifestyle and they’re lucky that they get to come back in April and play with their counties still, which is great.”

She was delighted to see the three Cross Coders rewarded for their efforts, saying it was definitely the fairest result that they got picked as they impressed the most.

Atkinson expects much more ladies footballers to go over, ply their trade and live the professional lifestyle over the next few years, but while it might be much more convenient now with the calendars, that’s likely to change soon.

“It’s highly attractive that they get to come back from Australia to play the championship with their counties as well,” she says.

“That’s not going to last for too long because of the introduction of new teams, the season’s going to run longer so I’d say that’ll only last for this year and next year.

“That’s when players have to really make the big decision if they want to spend a whole year over there and give up their time with their county completely.”

Her focus is firmly on the Farney county at the minute, and of course, defending the O’Connor Cup with DCU.

With Niall Treanor the new man the Monaghan helm, they’ll be looking to improve in 2019 and most importantly, retain their Division 1 status.

“Niall came in just there a couple of weeks ago. We were a little bit late starting, for my liking, but he’s got things up and running, he’s got a good team around him at the start.

“It’s something different. The past two managers we’ve had have both been women. They were very good and definitely brought a new thing to Monaghan ladies, we’re just looking to grow on what they have brought.

Muireann Atkinson, Muireann O'Rourke, Noleen McGuirk and Barbara Ward celebrate after the game Celebrating an All-Ireland semi-final win in 2013. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It’s a big change this year, we’re a team in transition. A lot of the older players have stepped back for different reasons so it’ll be interesting this year. There are a lot of club players in Monaghan who have got their chance, having been overlooked in other years because of the star-studded team we had previously.

“They’re well able for it and I’m excited to see what this year brings with the new talent we have in. It’s just getting all these players singing off the one hymn sheet.

“We’ve set out what we want to accomplish this year and it’s just putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, and hopefully success will start to come back to Monaghan ladies again.”

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Emma Duffy

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