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Finding players on Instagram and helping three Ladies GAA stars get AFL deals

The42 looks at the recent international AFL women’s trial which resulted in three Ladies Gaelic footballers getting picked up by clubs.

WHEN THE CONCEPT for an international recruitment drive in Women’s AFL [AFLW] was first pitched, the top officials in the sport weren’t sure if the time was right for that step.

AFLW GIANTS BLUES Cora Staunton in action for GWS Giants earlier this year. Source: AAP/PA Images

They didn’t know if there was enough of an appetite among the coaches in the league to pursue it, and there was no budget available to fund it.

That sense of apprehension was somewhat understandable considering that the AFLW is still in its infancy and heading for just its third season in 2019.

But a group of people saw something else and they took it upon themselves to bring female athletes from across the world to the elite level of women’s AFL.

AFL England president Jason Hill has been friends with Western Bulldogs player Lauren Spark since they first met while playing the game in London. Their links with the international AFL community, coupled with their connections with the Bulldogs gave them the impetus to get this project off the ground.

Along with Hill and Spark, Bulldogs coach Paul Groves and serial entrepreneur Jonathan Jeffries also got involved and completed a group which is now called the CrossCoders. The AFLW initially distanced themselves from the work they were doing to recruit players, but soon discovered that they would have to tap into this initiative. 

“We announced a partnership with the Bulldogs on the last day of July because that was the advice we got from the AFL. They told us to go and prove the theory with a single club and obviously we had links into the Western Bulldogs because Lauren plays there and Paul is the head coach there.

It was about 10 to 14 days before the camp was going to be happening that we got a call from the AFL which was basically, ‘you’ve been too successful with your application process and you’ve actually got too much talent in the programme so now it’s actually an unfair advantage to the Western Bulldogs.’

“The choice was either to take it to the whole league or they would have to be a salary cap which would have been the equivalent of the cost it was to run the camp.

“And although the Western Bulldogs put no money or investment into the camp, they would take the overall cost that we had spent and take that away from their salary cap.” He added:

AFLW GRAND FINAL BULLDOGS LIONS Lauren Spark (left) celebrates with the trophy after winning the 2018 AFLW grand final. Source: AAP/PA Images

“Obviously with the AFLW, every club is at the limit of their salary cap because they only have a certain amount they can spend on it so that was never going to be a way forward for the Bulldogs. 

“We quickly went out to all the other clubs and it was great because it meant there were more opportunities for the bringing out and at the end of the day, that was a bonus for us.

“Paul [Groves] was obviously a little upset because he was probably thinking that he was gonna get his choice of the best player [for the Bulldogs] but then it became a bit more competitive.”

Reaching out to female athletes across the world was a two-pronged attack for CrossCoders.

Hill contacted the heads of the various national governing bodies to open up lines of communication and get the ball rolling, and they also set out a plan to get in touch with all of the potential candidates individually. 

Given the established links between GAA and Aussie Rules, assessing the Ladies Gaelic football scene was a top priority for CrossCoders.

I was told that if I brought the Dublin ladies team out to Australia this year, I could win the AFLW Premiership,” says Hill.

“Cora Staunton was obviously our reference point as well because she’s like the equivalent of Michael Jordan in Ireland.

AFLW GIANTS BLUES Staunton enjoyed an impressive debut season in the AFLW. Source: AAP/PA Images

“Myself and Lauren sat down and went through a list of Commonwealth athletes, GAA athletes and a few other sports we knew that weren’t professional but were played at an elite level.

We contacted them through Instagram so Lauren reached out to about 500 in the end and as you can imagine, some of them thought it was a scam. We had about 100 applicants from 13 countries and 11 sports.”

Meanwhile in Ireland, AFL Ireland’s Mike Currane was eager to get involved in this project.

After first developing an interest in the sport in 1999, he became part of the movement which brought Aussie Rules in Ireland by establishing different competitions and leagues for both men and women.

image1 Mike Currane has been a fan of AFL since the late 90's. Source: Mike Currane.

He has been working with the Banshees [the national women's Aussie Rules team] for the last year and when he heard about CrossCoders, he offered himself up as a point of contact for them in Ireland.

The Clare native assisted the players with their applications and also travelled over with them to the CrossCoders international rookie camp in Melbourne, where 11 out of the 18 selected participants were from Ireland.

“The whole process happened very quickly,” he begins. “It was a little over eight weeks from inception to the girls flying out and I would have been liaising with the applicants in Ireland in the run up to the competition.

“I would have been quietly confident that the girls would have done very well,” says Currane. “The girls themselves didn’t really know what they were heading in for and it was brave of them all to travel to Oz at such short notice effectively.

The whole initiative was formed out of a desire to give international girls and opportunity to play at a professional level and I suppose to get everybody else to sit up and take notice.

“The talent around the world will add a significant level to the AFLW. Everybody was putting their neck on the line a little bit and as it turned out, the whole thing was a success from the minute we touched down through all the training sessions and various testings that were carried out at Victoria University.”

The CrossCoders trial consisted of skills-based training sessions over the course of a week. The 18 applicants also took part in a game against a selection of Aussie Rules players from the Victorian Football League [VFL], which is the grade beneath the AFL standard.

The CrossCoders players were given just 24 hours notice about the game, but Hill notes that they ‘took it in their stride.’

Currane was on the sidelines with Spark for that tie and he says that watching the visitors ‘dominate’ proceedings was one of his most enjoyable moments in his 20 years of involvement with Aussie Rules.

The seven AFLW clubs who attended the trial were also provided with video analysis and data on the players, and Hill says they were impressed with the talent they saw.

Adelaide actually flew in their best-and-fairest [award-winning] player Erin Phillips — who’s a triple Olympian in basketball and played in the WNBA — to try and convince Ailish [Considine] to sign for them. There was definitely a lot of interest.

“The feedback was that it was unbelievably well run and gave the management staff so much data in such a short period of time. They completely changed their plans because some of them hadn’t heard of this until a week before because it was a Bulldogs programme.”

Given it was their debut year, CrossCoders were hopeful that even one player might get picked up by a club.

As it turned out, they surpassed their own expectations as Donegal’s Yvonne Bonner and Considine from Clare were handed rookie deals by Greater Western Sydney [GWS] Giants and Adelaide Crows respectively.

Additionally, Tipperary star Aisling McCarthy was snapped up by the Western Bulldogs in the draft, which was fitting way to round it off as this was the club which started the Irish players off on their AFL adventure.

That means that there will be five Irish representatives in the AFLW next year as the trio prepare to join Sarah Rowe [Collingwood], and Staunton [GWS Giants] in the 2019 season.

Considine is already familiar with Aussie Rules having played with the West Clare Waves and the Irish Banshees, which will be a major advantage to her when the new season kicks off.

Currane is from her club Kilmihil in Clare, and he was thrilled to be there with her when she signed for the Crows.

“I was delighted she got signed and it was an absolute honour for me to head up to Adelaide with her to sign her contract and meet the club. Having a season behind her stood to her when we touched down and she was comfortable with kicking the sherrin. 

“That was noticed from pretty early on from some of the AFL coaches. She’s gonna hit the ground running as are Yvonne and Aisling and the girls.

“I’ll be watching keenly on the AFL website with five girls at four different clubs so there’s going to be a lot of interest.”

The only critique that CrossCoders received from the clubs who came to the trial was that it didn’t take place earlier in the year when they had two available rookie spots on their books.

Hill and the others have taken that feedback on board and plans are already in motion to have their 2019 trial in May, which means there will be more opportunities there for players to get deals.

But all in all, their first attempt at integrating international talent into the AFLW can be written down as a success. 

The feedback we’ve received from the athletes has been sensational. One of the girls told me that I changed her life. I didn’t do this to get personal satisfaction or anything like that but to get sentiment given to you was fairly emotional.

“We’re here to try and fight for equality and fight for opportunities. Just seeing how humble and amazing these ladies were when they came out to the camp, we’re just so keen to do everything we can to help put them in a place so that a seven or eight year-old playing GAA can see that they can do it and the opportunity can be there.

We want to give women that opportunity to do what they want to do and if sport is what they want to do, find ways to create opportunities for them to make that a reality.”

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