When the AFL International, the World Cup of Australian Rules Football, kicks off in Melbourne next weekend, the host country won’t be fielding a team in the tournament, which is held every three years.
As the only country where the sport is played professionally, they are just too good for the 14 men’s and seven women’s squads that will be lining out on August 5th-19th.
Ireland will be represented, however, and having won the tournament in 2002 and 2011, as well as reaching the final in 2014 and the semi-finals in 2005 and 2008, the Irish Warriors are among the favourites to take the men's title.
The game has been played in Ireland since 1999, and of the 30-strong men's squad, 18 are travelling from Ireland for the tournament, while 12 are based in Australia.
The cost of sending the team to take part is €75,000, which is being raised via a GoFundMe page (gofundme.com/irishwarrioric17). The Irish Warriors is an all-Ireland team, and several of the players are based in London.
Among the team members travelling this week from Ireland in advance of the tournament is Irish Times digital marketing executive Ronan Cull. Better known in sailing circles – he won the 2015 Laser National Championship, and has represented Ireland internationally – Cull is a relative newcomer to the sport, but has been making a big impression.
Cull took up the game in 2015 when he and his girlfriend Laura spent a year in Australia on a working holiday.
“For me it was the best way to get to know Australians, and their sporting culture,” says Cull, who played hockey and soccer at school in Sutton Park, but unlike many of the Irish players had never played Gaelic football.
He played Australian Rules for a season with Hawthorn Amateur Football Club in Melbourne, finishing up winning the club’s “most improved reserves player” award.
“It was a great way to integrate into the community. I was the only Irish person on the team in my club. The guys gave me lots of help finding work too.”
Returning to Ireland in October 2016, he joined the South Dublin Swans, was invited to join the Irish team training sessions, and in April was selected for the Irish team for the World Cup.
“It’s a very physical sport, there’s a lot of tackling. And you have to be extremely fit as well, certainly for the higher levels,” says Cull, who reckons that about 90 per cent of those playing the sport in Ireland took it up while they were living in Australia, while the rest are Gaelic football players “who want a change and are looking for a new sport”.
Quantity surveyor Brendan Browne from Ballybunion, Co Kerry, has been living in Australia for seven years, and will line out for the Irish Warriors in Melbourne. He played Gaelic football in Ballybunion and joined Clan Na Gael when he moved to Sydney, before falling for the local game.
“I wanted the challenge of a new sport and the community sense you get from being involved in a sporting club. My GAA club, Beale, was a big part of my life back home. I play on ball [mid-field] or in defence for my club UTS Bats.”
Browne says that Australian Rules is a popular sporting choice among the Irish living there. “My club has a number of Irish playing across all grades. I think the challenge of a new sport that is similar to Gaelic football is what attracts most Irish to AFL in the first place.”
But intending players should note that it is a demanding sport.
“Like Gaelic games it requires good agility, speed and aerobic capacity, and there is probably more of a requirement for endurance-based fitness also. Skills wise hand-eye co-ordination and good kicking abilities help.
“AFL is a tough sport as it involves a great deal of running, physical contact, and concentration as the games are long [30 minutes a quarter]. I like the physicality, along with the challenge of playing against guys who have been playing it all their lives.”
Michael Finn moved to Australia in 2003, and after working as an engineer and project manager he now has his own construction business, Kingdom Constructions Group, in Heidelberg, Victoria.
He has been playing Australian Rules with his local club Heidelberg for 10 years , having been introduced to the sport “at a ‘bucks’ party just after we arrived”.
“The crew insisted that I come down and have a kick. I was always going to give it a go, living here. There are a lot of similarities between GAA and AFL, plus the steady influx of players keeps the Irish involved. Melbourne is similar to Kerry – football is king,” he says.
“A lot of the skills are transferable from Gaelic. The main difference is the tackle. The execution of how to tackle and how to deal with a tackle are all coachable. Obviously the mark is a little different and so is the kicking action, but the Irish have a pretty good starting point from Gaelic.”
The Irish Warriors play Germany in an exhibition match in Melbourne before the World Cup kicks off. Once the tournament proper gets under way their biggest dangers will be the teams from New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
“We have played PNG in the past two Grand Finals, winning one and losing one. They will be strong again, no doubt,” Michael Finn says.
[ arfli.com ]