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'That's when it dawned on me that this isn't just a hobby. People's lives depend on this'

Mayo and Collingwood star Sarah Rowe reflects on her entire AFLW experience as she readjusts to Gaelic football.

Sarah Rowe had an impressive maiden season in the AFLW.
Sarah Rowe had an impressive maiden season in the AFLW.
Image: AAP/PA Images

SARAH ROWE RECENTLY brought the curtain down on an outstanding first season in the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW).

But actually, with the deal done and everything in place, the Mayo star nearly made a complete u-turn just before she packed up her life and headed Down Under.

The news broke that she had signed a one-season professional contract with Collingwood in late August 2018, a welcome change to the headlines that had come out of the Western county all summer long.

After 14 members of the panel left Peter Leahy’s set-up, the row rumbled on through the summer as Mayo’s championship campaign was tainted by off-the-field matters. In the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, it was of course a difficult time for all involved.

And while 23-year-old Rowe had put pen-to-paper with the Pies, she was concerned about leaving all of that behind her for some time. Again and again, she reaffirmed her commitment to the Mayo cause and stressed that she’d return as soon as possible.

Once she could, she’d be back on the home soil and 100% dedicated to the county set-up.

But she couldn’t help that feeling of apprehension, that concern, the second guessing.

“Having a young team, being in a fragile place, you feel like it’s your duty to be a bit more of a leader in the team,” she told The42 earlier this week, upon her return. “I suppose that part was tough for me. 

“I nearly went back on my decision just before I left. I had a good conversation with Peter and my family and stuff, and was assured that it was the right thing for me to do.

“Knowing how hard Peter trains teams, I knew that I’d come back into a team that were in a good place. He assured me that I would. That was nice to know that I had the backing of my team, I had the backing of Peter.

“That made my decision much easier. That was it.”

That it was, and off she went.

The Kilmoremoy native had an absolute ball, it’s fair to say. So much so that she looks set to go again next year. While she spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of staying on and the decision that lay ahead earlier this week, her expected return has since been as well as confirmed by the club.

“Best of luck in Ireland for the upcoming Gaelic football season, we look forward to having you back in black and white in 2020,” they wrote in announcing Rowe as their best first year player in 2019.

The individual gongs were plenty as she also rounded off an excellent maiden campaign with the Women’s Footy AFL Multicultural Player of the Year award, donating a sum of money she won to Headspace Australia, a non-profit organisation for youth mental health.

And the recognition was most definitely deserved — she chipped in with her fair share of goals and impressive individual displays. Collingwood, though, finished bottom of Conference B on four points, after just one win from seven games. 

But truth be told, it was about much more than that. 

“Reflecting on it, it’s been a massive experience for me and I’ve learned a lot about a professional team, the culture of a club,” she begins, as she launches into a soliloquy about the entire journey.

“I’ve learned a lot about how once it goes professional, not only is it just a hobby or just a sport, it’s then a business as well. It’s your job essentially.

“It’s your job to eat right, it’s your job to go to bed on time, it’s your job to be in the gym extra days. All them things, you just have to do them. There’s not really a choice in it.

“I suppose that switch was interesting, I really enjoyed that side of it and that pressure as such. There’s that bit more pressure for performance because the people who work around you and the coaches, these results also depend on their future.

“When things like that come into play, you really want to do it for them.

The switch in mentality, she loved that. With every word, her enjoyment shines through more and more as she goes into great detail about everything she learned.

More valuable lessons in leadership, teamwork, what a professional athlete looks like and acts like. So on, so forth.

sarah rowe 1 rowe donated some prize money to Headspace Australia after winning AFLW Multicultural Player of the Year. Source: Collingwood Women's Twitter.

While honing the skills involved with the oval ball game was important, as were all the tricks of the trade footie-wise, much of her reflection relates to learnings off the field. 

“What Collingwood as a club want you to be as a person first and then an athlete,” she smiles, “that was a massive part of their ethos in the club.

“They were very big on making sure you were a good person with a good attitude, that you worked hard and treated people around you with respect, did all the right things that were asked of you.

“They were big on culture and big on the type of person that you are first. They always say, ‘Person first, athlete second’.”

These things are thrown about at home, she adds, but they’re never looked at in detail. Never explored. Things are said here: you need to be positive, you need to work together for the greater good of the team, you need to treat one another with respect; but they’re not really implemented. In Australia, it’s taught and done by the book in practice.

She recalls sitting in the gym one day, just looking around her. That’s when it all hit her.

“I suppose because I was coming from an amateur background, I appreciated everything so much more,” she continues. “The girls who have been in it the last few years, it’s nearly been handed to them in a way.

“To sit in the gym and look around me and see everything; the facilities, the people; that’s when it kind of dawned on me that this isn’t just a hobby. People’s lives depend on this, and the people around me here are working for me, they’re working for the team and for everyone to be better athletes.

“It’s our duty to make sure we do everything we can to be better in this club. It dawned on me then that it was just a completely different environment.”

Another big difference to life at Collingwood was the integration across the board. The understanding, thinking and learning was shared across the men’s and women’s side of the club. In fact, it was pretty much four teams in one. 

No differentiation between the AFLW, AFL, VFL — second string women’s team — and the netballers. One for all, all for one. 

“That was unbelievable, that part made a massive difference to my game as well,” she beams, explaining how she’d ask around the club if anyone was free for a kickaround and off they’d go. Men’s coaches included.

No problem, what do you want to do?

AFLW MAGPIES KANGAROOS Celebrating with a team-mate. Source: AAP/PA Images

“I’d say, ‘Well, these are the things I want to work on. From watching the games, what do you think I should work on?’

“They’d come up and train with me then for an hour and-a-half, put a serious amount of time and effort into me. It was something that I really needed. Being new over there, I needed all the contact time and hours I could get, but to get it from coaches in the men’s game was unbelievable.”

Likewise, Rowe utilised the netball coaches for personal sessions.

“To have that and be tapping into other avenues and other sports to try and gain that bit more than other teams… also, you’re competing against the players on your own team to be better as well.

“You have all the facilities and the resources in the world to be better. I just thought it was unbelievable to have so much free access to the men’s coaches as well.

“I don’t think every club is like that over there though. I think Collingwood is particularly like that. Again, their culture is one club, one voice. They really do work off each other. It was class.”

She touched on competing against team-mates for places, and to make cuts. It’s always interesting to look at such highly-competitive environments in closer detail, particularly to see if there’s much of a difference overseas.

It’s a given in top level sport, especially when things turn professional. ‘Healthy competitive’ though, as she words it with a ‘no bullshit, no bitching’ outlook across the board.

“Obviously that does come into it when selection is done and 21 girls are picked on a Wednesday night with nine girls left out,” she explains.” You’re obviously going to have that tension of people being like, ‘I should be picked,’ ‘Why is she picked?’

“It was up to the people above us to make sure that that was not tolerated and if you did behave like that you’d be pulled into the office and told you’d be lucky to get a jersey for the rest of the year if you had that attitude.”

In fact that was the case in all circumstances. Any substandard attitude or behviour was very quickly pulled up on and dealt with accordingly by a leadership group of players and the club’s Head of Sport.

Either pull up your socks and set the record straight, or stay on the bench for the year.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, how many caps you had for Collingwood or whatever: if you didn’t have a good attitude… there was no room for that.

“You either take it on board or you don’t and if you don’t, it’s your loss. It’s interesting. You can have that at times in amateur set-ups but it’s just not tolerated in a professional set-up.”

AFLW BLUES MAGPIES Tayla Harris. Source: AAP/PA Images

Another thing during the year that was met with a no tolerance stance from most angles was the photograph storm surrounding Carlton Blues star Tayla Harris. 

In short: an incredible picture of the player in full flight was captured towards the end of the season, but online trolling she slammed as “sexual abuse” followed.

Rowe got to know Harris, who’s also a professional boxer, on her Australian adventure, so the situation came as a particularly disappointing one.

“I met her a few times and she’s a lovely girl and a very talented athlete,” she says. “She’s had a tough season. Before that picture, she had a game where she hit the post in front of the goal and that went viral. Then she had that situation right after it, I felt really sorry for her. 

“It was good to see how many people stood up behind her and supported her, kind of nearly put a stop to letting that happen again.”

What about Rowe’s own experiences, was there anything negative at all aimed at her?

“Not really, but there’s definitely more of it in Australia. I think with the game becoming more high profile over there, you’re going to be accustomed to it.

“You obviously see it with the male footballers over here, or male rugby players or whatever, you always see online abuse. The higher the standard, the higher the profile of the game, the more likely that you’re going to get that abuse like. 

“There was a few comments I did see on Twitter where people were saying, ‘Why are you picking Irish? Pick Australians, they’ve been playing for years. The Irish can pack their bags and go home.’ You have that and then you have these other people who are saying, ‘It’s great to see the Irish out, they’ve done unbelievably well.’

“Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. Playing sport at this level, there’s often a lot more bad days than there are good.”

She tried her best not to read too much online when she was over there. She did see one or two negative comments about her team-mates though.

“I was like, ‘Jesus I don’t need to look at that’. I’d turn off my notifications on Twitter after a game. But then when you play well you nearly want to see the good comments,” she giggles. Again, the good with the bad.

Sarah Rowe Rowe on the ball in the 2017 All-Ireland final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“At the end of the day, the people behind the computer screens are keyboard warriors. They probably have never played a game in their lives. You take it with a pinch of salt, but I understand how people would take it really personal.

“Maybe it will come into the ladies game [in Ireland] but I suppose it’s something that you have to deal with.”

Well, no better woman to deal with any matter that comes her way.

Rowe is well used to the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and everything else that goes hand-in-hand with life in the fast lane. A former Ireland soccer star and fully-qualified PE and Biology teacher, she’s balanced everything and anything from club to county to international duty, juggling dual and often treble codes, week in, week out through the years.

So naturally, she took everything into her stride from the off over there. The way the players train — the amount of time, the number of sessions — was similar, and that was a help.

“That’s a credit to where ladies football has come to over the past few years,” she says. “A few years ago, I would have went over there and said, ‘This is such a big step-up, my body’s not physically able for this’.

“Over the last two years, things in Mayo have improved a lot. We train five or six times a week. For me to go into that over there was big, but considering ladies football has grown so much over the last three or four years, I was more ready for it than I would have been a few years ago.”

It’s the transfer back to the round ball that’s she’s finding more difficult than anticipated at the minute, she grins. Having first touched down on home soil three weeks ago, she was straight down to Mayo training the next night.

With two cameo appearances from the bench under her belt against Cork and Monaghan since, and a holiday to Dubai sandwiched in between, she’s refreshed, re-energised and ready to go again.

The different tempo over here takes some readjustment, as she leaves the stop-start nature of the Australian game behind. She completely closed the door on Gaelic football while employed by Collingwood, so just getting tuned in and back into that frame of mind and routine once again is a challenge alone.

Sarah Rowe celebrates with team mates after the game Rowe is delighted to be back with her Mayo team. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Aside from speaking to Peter and keeping track of Mayo, I didn’t even think about football for myself over there. I was so focused on getting to grips with the oval ball and their game. I completely switched off. 

“When I came back into the Cork game for the first five minutes, I was kind of like, ‘Hold on a second… what am I doing?’ Then as I got into the game, I was grand.

“It’s just continuous in Gaelic. The ball keeps moving, and I had gotten out of that habit.”

Slowly finding her feet once again, she gives herself a bit of credit. To be fair, she’s used to playing all year round with ridiculous amounts of minutes in the tank at this stage — even just touches of the ball, that’s something one takes for granted.

“It’s not even like coming back from injury, you’ve completely not played for six months,” she concludes. And then she remembers something else.

“Well, because I had surgery on my shoulder in September, I haden’t essentially kicked a Gaelic ball since the middle of August.

“It’s just practice. Like everything, practice makes perfect.”

It sure does.

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Emma Duffy

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