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Dublin: 0°C Friday 27 November 2020
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'I remember going into the first training and just being like, 'What is happening here?''

Tipperary triple-threat Orla O’Dwyer reflects on the highs and lows of her first season in the AFLW.

Tipperary triple-threat Orla O'Dwyer.
Tipperary triple-threat Orla O'Dwyer.
Image: CrossCoders/Brisbane Lions.

LATER TODAY — OR in the middle of the night where she is — Orla O’Dwyer will fire up a the RTÉ Player and watch her team-mates in an All-Ireland camogie quarter-final.

It’s something she’s become accustomed to over the last while, having split her life between Ireland and Australia as she balances three sports at the highest level.

Tipperary dual star O’Dwyer is back in Brisbane, chasing the Aussie Rules dream once again having enjoyed a few crazy months on home soil. While she lined out, and excelled, for both Premier inter-county outfits when she was around, she’ll be watching from thousands of miles away today.

There’s no doubt about it, it’s a very strange feeling. And of course, she misses it all.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” O’Dwyer tells The42. “Some days are harder than others.

“I suppose it’s about just being as supportive as I can watching the girls’ games and making sure to text after saying, ‘Well done’ or, ‘Hard luck,’ depending on how they go.

“That’s all I can really do. I’m looking forward to watching the game now this weekend and seeing how they get on.”

O’Dwyer will be following each and every minute of the action from her hotel room as she continues her isolation stint, having returned to Australia last week.

And she’ll be backing her Premier side all the way against Waterford, a place in the last four up for grabs should they prevail — though her loss is a huge one, as is the absence of dual star Aishling Moloney, who’s suspended.

For a self-confessed home bird, it’s not easy keeping an eye on matters from afar, but thankfully, she’s very rarely out of the loop, keeping in close contact with family and friends as much as possible.

“I actually talk to my Mam more than my sister does and she’s only in Limerick in college,” the 22-year-old laughs. “It’s so handy now with social media.

I know the news now before Mam even tells me at this stage. With WhatsApp and FaceTime, it just seems like you’re so close to home… way closer to it than on the other side of the world. That helps a lot. Some days are obviously harder than others but they balance out.”

Her days at the minute aren’t just what she’s used to in Oz, isolation the order before she links up with her Brisbane Lions outfit for pre-season number two. Training is the most productive part of her daily routine; hotel room workouts, and walks and runs in the sun taking up a big chunk of her time.

“It’s just crazy imagining how two different sides of the world are coping with Covid,” O’Dwyer notes, adding that the eased restrictions and sense of normality in Australia is a breath of fresh air. The warm weather certainly helps too, and it’s something she missed.

Although she was born in Sydney and holds Australian citizenship as a result, that was one of the many adjustments she had to make when she set out on her big adventure this time last year.

orla-odwyer Facing Waterford in 2018. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

O’Dwyer signed for the Lions after working with CrossCoders — the agency that has brought numerous Irish athletes to the AFLW — and left her life at home behind, taking a massive step into the unknown.

“Last year I came out, I think it was five weeks before pre-season actually started because I knew I hadn’t really a clue how to kick the ball or play. I knew I needed them extra sessions in at the start.

“Once I got here, I did lots of one-to-one sessions with some of the coaches and some of the girls as well, and that helped me a lot. I could see how far I needed to get to.

I remember going into the first training and just being like, ‘What is happening here?! They’re all moving so fast.’ I was kicking but like at a real slow pace and learning to handball it properly. They were all doing it at a million miles per hour.

“But once you keep training and you keep practising it, just keep going around with the ball in your hand and getting used to it and the skills, you do pick up the pace and you do catch onto it all. 

“It was daunting coming over, I remember, but I was also very excited and looking forward to the challenge. I know it’s a great opportunity and lots of girls would love to have the chance so I definitely took that on board.”

That’s only a little over a year ago now, but surely feels like a lot longer with everything that’s happened since. Having impressed in her new sport from the get-go, O’Dwyer announced her arrival in the league with a goal with her very first touch.

A Gaelic football style effort marked a dream debut and Brisbane’s new #9 went on to impress through the season. 

“I definitely really enjoyed it,” she reflects. “It was definitely a challenge going into it, but I learned a lot about myself as a player while also learning the sport.

Coming from playing camogie and football that you had played all your life into a new sport does take a mental toll on you as well as physically.

“The game is different, as we know, but there’s lots of similar aspects with the likes of bouncing and catching and the running as well, the hard running back and forward is similar to Gaelic football.

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“But the way you have to go into a new sport, and you’re kind of starting at the rock bottom and you’ve to try and get up to to the pace everyone else is at, getting used to the oval ball and the rules of the game and even the whole tactics around it, getting used to rotations, that took a lot of time. I’m still learning that every time I go training.”

aflw-dockers-lions In action against Fremantle. Source: AAP/PA Images

Every day is a school day, and an opportunity for reflection. A chance to improve and get better, and that’s a focus of O’Dwyer’s ahead of the 2021 season after the pandemic scuppered the end of the last campaign.

“We were unlucky, we got as far as the final stages but it got cancelled then,” she frowns, but then remembers the many positives. “But we had a great season and hopefully now this year, we can go further again.

“Even just knowing what to expect and knowing how the pre-season is gonna go, having that bit of background from last year coming into this season will help a lot. And hopefully I won’t be as rusty going in!”

O’Dwyer, who plays her club camogie with Cashel and football with Boherlahan, doesn’t take any of this for granted. It’s an opportunity she’s grabbed with both hands from the very start.

After all, every athlete across the world dreams of tasting the professional lifestyle, and this success story from rural Tipperary is delighted to live that dream.

All of those extra inches she has at the Lions, whether that be access to specialised backroom team members, looking at statistics and data in fine detail or just the extra development time, all adds to her game.

And that’s the same for the 16 other Irish players who will join her over the coming weeks as the ladies football calendar comes to a close here. That connection to home is never too far away.

“It’s great to see so much of the Irish girls coming back as well and a lot of them did sign two-year deals so that’s great to see,” she nods. “There’s some new players as well so I’ll be very interested to see how they go.

“I’m sure they’re all excited to get back so hopefully their travel exemptions work out and their flights go ahead.

James [Madden, Dublin footballer] is here with the men obviously. It’s great even just hearing an Irish voice, it’s really refreshing sometimes after hearing the Aussie accent for so long.

“The rest of the girls are spread out then between Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide. We’d have to get a plane to go to where they are but it’s obviously enjoyable when you come up against them.

“You can see that they still have that Gaelic style of playing and you can kind of predict what they’re gonna do. Then just meeting them afterwards is refreshing as well, seeing how well they are getting on. Thy all seem to be saying the same thing and loving the club and loving the training so that’s great to hear.”

O’Dwyer is content to split her life and enjoy the best of both worlds for now — minus this clash, though she won’t complain. She’s focusing on sport, and couldn’t be happier, having taken some time away from her teaching degree in University of Limerick [UL].

More important things to tend to? 

aflw-lions-giants O'Dwyer is a fan favourite at Brisbane. Source: AAP/PA Images

“I don’t know if my parents would agree with that,” she laughs. “College, I definitely need to get that finished. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, I’m doing PE and Irish teaching and it is the career I want to go down.

“I’m looking forward to getting that done and becoming a teacher. Hopefully now I’ll finish that, I’ve two years left. Once I’m fully qualified then I can reassess the whole situation and see what to do.

“I’ve taken another year out because I can take up to two years out with my degreE. I said I’d take the two years out together and just see how well I can do here, and then obviously go back and finish the degree and reassess situation then afterwards.”

That’s all down the line, though. Her immediate focus is on the busy weeks ahead once she finishes up in self-isolation. Then it’s all systems go for pre-season, staying put for Christmas and season number two.

“I’m excited for 2021 and what’s to come,” O’Dwyer concludes. “Hopefully everything will be back to normal or there or thereabouts and that everything can get played. I can get back then and play with Tipp once that’s all over, I’m looking forward to that too.”

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