western way
'It's something as a child you dream of. To do that alongside my sister in Australia is class'
From the west of Ireland to the West Coast Eagles, Mayo sisters Niamh and Grace Kelly on seizing the opportunity of a lifetime.

A DREAM COME true is a cliché thrown about more often than not, but in this case it most definitely applies.

From the west coast of Ireland to the west coast of Australia, Mayo sisters Niamh and Grace Kelly have officially signed for West Coast Eagles ahead of their inaugural season in the Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW].

1mayo Inpho. Grace and Niamh Kelly. Inpho.

“We’re both just so grateful and excited to be given an opportunity like this, to go play professional sport in a different country,” 23-year-old Niamh smiles.

“It’s something as a child you always dream of, you dream about playing professional sport and being an athlete. To do that alongside Grace in Australia for the 2020 season is class. We’re really excited.”

Grace’s initial delight that the deal is done is just as evident.

“We’re both really excited now,” the 24-year-old echoes her younger sister’s sentiments, also in conversation with The42 on Tuesday, before the club made their official announcement today.

“It’s kind of only hitting home now when you see articles about it. It hits home then that you’re actually going. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Both as bubbly as ever as they answer the phone to discuss their news, perhaps it’s best to look back at how this all came about first and foremost. How the Moy Davitts duo are now the sixth and seventh Irish players confirmed for the 2020 AFLW season, with more to come in the coming weeks and months.

The key? CrossCoders.

A global programme that’s allowing top female athletes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play professionally in the AFLW, CrossCoders brought three Irish girls to the league last year.

Ailish Conisidine, Yvonne Bonner and Aisling McCarthy all signed rookie contracts off the back of a trial camp in Melbourne last September, joining Mayo duo Cora Staunton and Sarah Rowe for the 2019 season. All five impressed, and have since resigned for 2020.

Interestingly, the AFLW’s newest Irish imports were in line for that same trial camp Down Under, but it just didn’t work out.

“Grace and Niamh actually applied for Year One,” CrossCoders co-founder Jason Hill explains.

“They submitted their expression of interest, they did their application and were probably likely to be selected for the camp. They pulled out for various reasons, just due to other life commitments they had at the time. 

wce West Coast Eagles. West Coast Eagles.

“We were very aware of Grace and Niamh before even we started taking expressions of interest this year. Because they were part of that kind of initial intake, we worked with them quite closely to explore were they still interested in playing. The more they saw of the Irish girls, the more they thought this was an opportunity they couldn’t ignore.”

With four new teams established, West Coast Eagles being one of them, CrossCoders worked closely with the sisters to unearth new opportunities — and of course, display their talent to clubs through data, video footage and other information.

“With Grace and Niamh we’ve proven the theory that from a distance away, we can show that they’re exceptionally talented athletes, that they’re exceptional human beings that clubs are willing to… some may say take a risk on, but I’d say clubs are willing to back them and their talent that they’re seeing,” Hill continues.

“It’s quite obvious that they are very, very talented athletes and even better people. 

“When I spoke with Adam [Selwood, head of female football] at the West Coast Eagles, he said, ‘What amazing human beings and what amazing people these are… how we’d be lucky to have them as part of the initial group of people that are growing the culture of our club’.”

It’s worked before with the Irish contingent, so clubs are trusting their instinct that it will work again — and ladies footballers will again make huge impact going forward.

Several sides approached the sisters within a short time frame and they did plenty of other video calls before coming to their decision. West Coast were actually the first of those, and both stress that it just felt right from the get-go.

“They definitely stood out,” Grace smiles. “Adam and Luke [Dwyer], the manager and coach of West Coast Eagles, they were very professional and just the way they described the facilities, the new team, how we’d be part of creating the culture…It just all felt really welcoming.

“They were very friendly as well. They said they’d do anything they could for us and that was our decision made then. We were happy, we’re delighted.

Niamh Kelly Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Niamh is Mayo captain. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Perth city itself seems really nice as well. It kind of reminded me of Mayo a little bit, the west coast!”

“We were just drawn to West Coast Eagles and their level of professionalism and support,” Niamh, Mayo’s captain for 2019, re-iterates in her call. “Even from our first conversation with Adam and Luke, we knew that it was somewhere we’d fit and felt like home.

“They liked the idea of us coming out together. We’re coming from the west of Ireland and coming over to the west of Australia…. the set-up, they have top class facilities. Being able to play in a professional set-up together is class.”

Their similarities both in and away from sport are startling. From saying the same things, completely oblivious to the other, to linking up admirably on the field. Both pacy forwards — Niamh a half, Grace a full which will transfer nicely to winger and forward in Australia — they’ve been leading the line for Peter Leahy’s set-up of late.

They’ve played alongside each other right up through the ranks at club and county, and have been involved at senior level, donning the Green and Red, for the last seven or eight years.

Extremely close off the pitch too and both teaching in the capital, they’re almost a package deal at this rate.

“We’re stuck to each others’ hips no matter where we go,” Grace giggles. “Even in Dublin we’re both in Drumcondra, we see each other nearly every evening.

“It’s good that we’re going together. We’ll try not fight as much as we do here,” she laughs once again, joking, of course.

“It is good. Playing with each other as well, we know each others’ runs. We’re well used to it. It will be a great as well learning the new game; we can practice together, do our extra bits together as well.”

While this is a leap into the unknown and venture into uncharted territory for the double act, it’s not exactly all strange and new. They’ve played a small bit of Aussie Rules with West Clare Waves, the team Considine represented before moving to Adelaide.

It was just a one-day tournament, but every little helps after all.

“I really enjoyed it,” Grace continues. “It was nice to play a different sport. It’s not completely different, the ball obviously is and we got belts left, right and centre — that was a change! But you get used to it fairly quickly as well.”

Grace Kelly and Aoife Kane Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Grace is also a star forward with the Westerners. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

How unpredictable the bounce is has Niamh grinning when the switch to the oval ball is put to her — and the potential for plenty of practice between now and then along with county team-mate and Collingwood star Rowe.

She’s now back in the fold as the countdown to the Connacht final continues — nine weeks, the sisters inform me — and Niamh is looking forward to following Rowe’s example, among others, and doing both in 2020.

“Obviously it was a tough enough decision because we’re loyal to Mayo and stuff like that,” she explains, “but the way the AFL league is and the way the season runs, it allows us to play both so it will put us in line to play Gaelic when we come back, and set us up for that. It’s good that we’re able to play both.”

And seeing how well the five players got on last season, and the shape they came home to Ireland in, bodes well for the Kellys. A positive thing, a huge development in terms of their inter-county careers, Niamh says.

“We didn’t think this would be happening but it looks like a lot more will be heading out. It’s getting bigger and bigger, it’s very exciting,” Grace adds.

As the numbers rise, opinions are bound to be split but the sisters are lucky to have an understanding manager in Leahy who’s allowing them to do both.

“Peter’s delighted for us. He’s big for taking any opportunity you get. We mightn’t get it ever again so he’s very happy for us and very understanding.

“It’s just the league that we’ll miss and we made sure we have flights home for Christmas so we can play a bit and touch base with the team.”

Their mother, Breda, has already been busy looking up flights, Niamh laughs, sharing that family and friends are delighted to see them undertaking such a huge opportunity.

It’ll all be a nice break from the teaching too, living the professional dream, says Grace.

“When we were younger, we used to play soccer and Gaelic and we had to pick one or the other. We wanted the professionalism of the soccer but we preferred Gaelic. AFL, you’re kind of getting professionalism and similarities with Gaelic football so we’re delighted.”

“Ah, it’s class,” Niamh agrees. “It’s all the sweeter when Grace is there as well.

“You’re moving from Ireland to another country, it will obviously take a while to settle but having Grace there, it allows us to get straight into playing and focusing on the game.

“It’ll be a huge boost to have someone familiar beside you as well. We’re looking forward to playing professional, giving it a right go and coming back then.”

And both are hugely thankful to CrossCoders for helping them every step of the way. While Selwood said the programme was “an extremely valuable experience from the club,” it was also beyond valuable for the players in question.

With Niamh tied up with work and Grace in college last year, the time wasn’t just right to head to the camp, but now they’re ready to go full steam ahead for 2020 — with pen put to paper nice and early.

“There were opportunities there that we wouldn’t have gotten without them,” Grace smiles. “They’ve really opened up opportunities for Irish people to come out. Jason has been excellent to us, his communication has been brilliant between us and the club.”

And Hill himself — who keeps up to date with the ladies football scene week in, week out from Australia, added: 

“You look at Grace and Niamh, and even though they weren’t a package deal, I think every club treated them as it because of the fact that they are so complimentary to each others’ playing style.

“You’re not getting two carbon clones of each other, you’re getting two girls that actually fit extremely well together. We’re so excited to see them play. I think they will be so impressive this year, knowing everything we’re seeing.

Sarah Rowe celebrates with team mates after the game Morgan Treacy / INPHO Mayo had a turbulent year in 2018. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“Everything that the West Coast saw in them just points to the fact that we think they’re almost ready-made for this sport and this level. I’m so excited to see how they go next year, I think it’s going to be amazing.”

The fact that West Coast are a new team adds a new dimension, with the sisters really keen to make their mark in Oz and write history alongside players coming from elsewhere. 

Part of the Whatsapp group already and pleased after online introductions to management and team-mates, the excitement is building more and more for the adventure to begin when all is finished up with club and county.

October-time, they estimate, but there’s a few jobs to be done between now and then. The Australian dream must be parked and the focus remains firmly on Mayo.

“We’re training away with Mayo,” Grace smiles. “Our next game isn’t for nine weeks in the Connacht final. All our focus is on that now. Once that’s [AFLW deal] announced it’ll be forgotten about now, and heads down.

“We did okay in the league, we wanted to stay up in Division 1 and we’re happy with some of our performances more than others. It’s all a learning curve, it is a new team building towards bigger and better things hopefully.”

Just like Down Under.

“We’re looking forward to Australia but at the minute, our main focus is on Mayo,” Niamh concludes. That it is.

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