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'She's an exceptional athlete' - the newest Irish face in the AFLW

Multi-sport Mayo star Rachel Kearns is one of 14 Irish players involved this season.

Rachel Kearns.
Rachel Kearns.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated Jan 4th 2022, 8:27 PM

IRISH EYES WILL be firmly fixated on fourteen players in the Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW] over the coming weeks.

While the likes of Cora Staunton and Orla O’Dwyer have taken centre stage over the last few years, the newest addition to the Irish contingent is certainly one to watch.

That is, of course, Rachel Kearns.

The multi-talented Mayo star made history in July by becoming the first player from these shores to sign for Geelong’s AFLW side.

From making the move Down Under to another ladies football All-Star and stunning exploits in the Women’s National League [WNL] with Galway WFC, the past few months have been nothing but a whirlwind for the 24-year-old. 

The 2019 and 2021 All-Star forward is probably best known for her outstanding efforts with the Mayo ladies footballers; starring mostly in attack, but also in defence and even in goals since making her debut in 2015.

But at the other end of the pitch, her keen eye for goal, free-taking ability, and pace, power and precision has established her as one of the Green and Red’s top players over the past few years.

This was perhaps best seen in last August’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin, as she scored 1-5 and was a definite shining light for Michael Moyles’ side.

Screenshot 2022-01-04 at 16.45.19 Facing Richmond in a pre-season match. Source: Geelong Cats.

“Rachel is a unique talent,” Moyles said of the CL McHale Rovers ace afterwards. “That’s her stage, that’s where Rachel wants to be, as she’s shown there today. She’ll be loss when she goes to Australia but that’s the nature of the beast.”

Kearns, too, will be a loss for Galway WFC, where she enjoyed an impressive comeback season in the top-flight of Irish women’s soccer.

While balancing both sports, she scored six goals in four games — including an opening-day hat-trick — for the Tribe to be named April’s Player of the Month.

This came as no surprise, as she previously represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level — excelling for the U19s in particular — and Castlebar Celtic in the WNL. It also earned her a call-up to Vera Pauw’s home-based training sessions, though injury hampered her progress at times.

Her mind, too, may have been elsewhere, with her Geelong signing unveiled in July.

“Rachel is an experienced athlete, her list of achievements speak for themselves,” as the club’s head AFLW, Brett Johnson, said at the time. (The Crossmolina native also has two All-Ireland boxing medals to her name).

“She is well suited to the physicality of AFLW and we see her making a strong contribution.”

That’s clearly already being seen, after she really impressed in a pre-season win over Richmond, with captain Meg McDonald naming her the team’s “best player from another sport” in an AFLW poll.

She, too, has made a big impression on Zach Tuohy; the Laois great having taken Kearns under his wing at Geelong.

“I’m just trying to help with the transition a little bit,” he explained in November. “I get a real kick out of the Irish guys and girls now coming out. It’s a long time ago that I first started I can still remember the challenges that I first had.

“There’s a few of us at the club now, so it kind of does feel a little bit like we should look after each other and the more Irish players that are successful out here, the better for all of us. If I can help them in any way I will.”

On Kearns specifically, Tuohy added: “The base she’s coming from is very, very high so I’m not sure I’ve actually contributed too much at this point.

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“One of the problems I had when I started was I had a tendency to want to kick everything really low and hard. Rachel is already exceptional at that kick, so we’re just working on moving from that type of kick to more weighted kicks to advantage.

“She’s already clearly an exceptional athlete – that’s’ the type of player that gets brought out here from Ireland.

“She’s been hugely successful back home so she’s going to have no trouble adapting to the game in terms of how dynamic it is.

“The skills component is usually the part that takes time for the Irish players but she’s far more advanced than I was expecting so I suspect she’s going to be one of the club’s better players already.”

All will be revealed in due course, with Kearns in line for her AFLW debut against North Melbourne on Saturday.

There, she will be reunited with Mayo team-mate Aileen Gilroy, with six of the 14-strong Irish contingent hailing from the western county.

Irish players to feature in the 2022 AFLW season

  • Orla O’Dwyer (Brisbane Lions / Tipperary)
  • Aisling McCarthy (West Coast Eagles / Tipperary)
  • Grace Kelly (West Coast Eagles / Mayo)
  • Niamh Kelly (West Coast Eagles / Mayo)
  • Aileen Gilroy (North Melbourne / Mayo)
  • Rachel Kearns (Geelong Cats / Mayo)
  • Sarah Rowe (Collingwood / Mayo)
  • Aishling Sheridan (Collingwood / Cavan)
  • Cora Staunton (GWS Giants / Mayo)
  • Bríd Stack (GWS Giants / Cork)
  • Áine Tighe (Fremantle / Leitrim)
  • Sinéad Goldrick (Melbourne / Dublin)
  • Lauren Magee (Melbourne / Dublin)
  • Ailish Considine (Clare / Adelaide Crows)

2022 AFLW Round One fixtures

*all in Irish time

Friday 7 January

  • St Kilda v Richmond, SkyBus Stadium, 8.15am

Saturday 8 January

  • North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos v Geelong Cats, Arden Street, 6.10am
  • Western Bulldogs v Melbourne, Victoria University Whitten Oval, 8am
  • Fremantle v West Coast Eagles, Fremantle Oval, 9.50am

Sunday 9 January

  • Adelaide Crows v Brisbane Lions, Flinders University Stadium, 3.10am
  • Carlton v Collingwood, Ikon Park, 5.10am
  • Gold Coast Suns v GWS Giants, Great Barrier Reef Arena, 7.10am.

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Emma Duffy

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