'She's a huge boost to us. She was straight back in, at the first training session within 24 hours'

Mayo captain Niamh Kelly is delighted to have her team-mate Sarah Rowe back in the set-up.

WHILE SHE’S UNSURE whether a stint in the AFLW would appeal to her personally, Mayo captain Niamh Kelly is more than happy to welcome team-mate Sarah Rowe back into the fold.

Sarah Rowe celebrates with team mates after the game Niamh Kelly is delighted to have Sarah Rowe (14) back in the Mayo set-up. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Rowe made her return to the Green and Red in the latter stages of their Division 1 Lidl Ladies National Football League campaign with cameos from the bench against Cork and Monaghan respectively, after a glittering maiden campaign with Collingwood Down Under.

“She’s back, which is great,” Kelly tells The42 at the 2019 John West National Féile launch.

Both 23 and close friends through all the underage ranks right through to senior, the Moy Davvitts star laughs momentarily as she recalls Rowe’s Kilmoremoy beating her side in the very same competition back at U14s.

“We lost out by a point, the slagging we got all week from her,” she grins. Not much has changed so.

“She’s a huge boost to us, and she’s a huge boost now coming from AFL. They’ve done a lot of hard training. A few games now and she’ll be back gunning to play for the Connacht final. It’s great to have her. A great boost.

“It was nice to see her out there, but it was definitely nice to see her come back. I was chatting to her a good bit when she was over in Melbourne, there’s top-class facilities over there.

“It’s great to see what she witnessed out there. She was even saying that ladies football has come on so much in the last couple of years, the comparison between it now and AFL out there, there’s not that much of a difference.

“Obviously a lot goes on in the background, but the standard and the hard training is pretty much the exact same.”

After living the professional lifestyle and witnessing that different mindset, Rowe has brought plenty of advice back to Peter Leahy’s set-up over the past few weeks. 

“She came straight back and was at the first training session within 24 hours for Mayo,” Kelly explains. “It took her a while I suppose to settle because she was jet-lagged for a good while at first. Then she needed a little mental break. But it’s great to have her back.”

What about herself? Is it something that would ever appeal to her?

“To be honest, I don’t really know,” she ponders. “I love playing with Mayo. When you’re playing with Mayo you’re showing a pride for the jersey. It’s a pure community thing, the community comes together and it’s all pride.

“But obviously that’s a huge opportunity like. It’s a great opportunity for people. I suppose I’d have to see what would come.

“It was a great opportunity for Sarah like, she got offered a great contract which was brilliant for her. It was a super chance for her, so I suppose it just depends on the individual and your circumstances at the time.”

Another thing, of course, is the question as to whether ladies footballers can do both over the coming years as the AFLW expands. 

Niamh Kelly Niamh Kelly on the ball in March. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

With the addition of four new teams in 2020, it was understood that it would lead to a longer season — meaning Irish players would ultimately have to choose one or the other should the lure of inter-county football sway them.

But now, the option of starting the league earlier is being explored so as not to overlap with the AFL season,  so the AFLW would finish at the same time and allow ladies footballers to do both.

“It was great for Sarah because she got all her hard training done and then she’s back for championship, which is the most important thing for us at the moment,” Kelly nods.

“Look, it’s a huge… I think everyone wants to play professional so that was lovely for Sarah to go out and experience it. I’d say a lot more Irish girls will be going out.”

In Rowe’s absence, one player to really put her hand up was Rachel Kearns at full-forward. She made a huge statement on the opening day of the league with 1-6 from the edge of the square after plenty of performances elsewhere through the years. 

The sheer mention of Kearns’ name has her skipper beaming.

“That girl,” she laughs. “She was in goal last year for the league, she was then brought to wing back and now she’s in full-forward.

Sarah Rowe celebrates with Rachel Kearns and Sarah Mulvihill Rowe (centre) and Kearns (left) last summer. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“That girl is very versatile. She’s super, she’s got great power. You could put her anywhere and she’d still play well. She’s pure determined.”

Plenty of other younger players get a mention after a positive league campaign for the Westerners. After a 2018 which was marred by off-the-field matters, the aim for the beginning of 2019 was to get back playing — and enjoying — games, unearthing new players and focusing on football.

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“Reflecting on the league, exactly, we just went out to play games,” she smiles.

“Girls wanted to get game time. A lot of girls, it was their first time in with the county team. Our focus obviously was to win every game and to try and expose as many players as we could in the league.

“A lot of girls got their chance, I think nearly every girl got a game in the league so that was very good. We were unfortunate, we didn’t make a league final now but our focus was to just maintain our Division 1 status so we were happy with that.”

Rachel Doonan with Niamh Kelly Kelly facing Cavan last year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

She concludes, with her attention switching to provincial matters — the Connacht final first and foremost: “We have 10 weeks now until championship starts.

“We were always in league mode, so now championship is another step up. We know that we obviously have to put our heads down and work hard. There’ll be a lot of hard training now over the next 10 weeks.

“Hopefully we get focused on that and keep working hard, and hopefully the result will come. Galway are a great side and there’s always that bit of rivalry there between us.”

Mayo footballer Niamh Kelly was on hand to launch the 2019 John West National Féile today, and to announce the sponsorship renewal for a further four years until 2022.

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