A grand match: Irish women and Aussie Rules are going very well together

Four Irish players will be in action when North Melbourne face Brisbane in Sunday’s AFLW showdown

Regardless of who wins Sunday’s AFLW Grand Final between North Melbourne and Brisbane, another two Irish players will be showered in ticker tape and acclaimed among the ultimate achievers in women’s Aussie rules.

When Geelong’s Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor wrapped themselves in Tricolours on the winners’ podium after last year’s equivalent men’s fixture, it was a history-making anomaly. By contrast, an Irish champion is close to an annual guarantee in the women’s game.

At the start of this AFLW season, 33 Irish players were in squad lists, accounting for more than 5 per cent of the total playing population across 14 clubs. Far from making up the numbers on an extended holiday jolly, an ever-increasing number have become key performers and leaders for their teams.

Tipperary’s Orla O’Dwyer - who will again line out for Brisbane in what will be their fifth grand final appearance in eight seasons - is a premiership winner, one of the best known players in the competition and was named All Australian (equivalent of an All Star) in Season 6.

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She has been one of the best performers for the Lions throughout the finals series, highlighted by a goal snapped from the sort of angle David Clifford might have thought twice about during their tight qualifying final win over Adelaide.

That game also featured an outstanding goal from Mayo’s Niamh Kelly, whose Adelaide side will not be involved in this weekend’s grand final but she did become only the second Irish player to be named All Australian when the gongs were handed out this week.

Meanwhile Aishling Moloney, also from Tipperary and a deadline-day addition to Geelong’s side, was acknowledged by her peers this week with the best first year player award, the imposing full forward having kicked almost a goal per game and caused a notable amount of wreckage in front of goal throughout her debut season.

Moloney had been in Australia for just a few weeks when she started her first AFLW game, highlighting a tendency for Irish players to hit the ground sprinting rather than requiring a long-term investment from clubs before they start providing tangible returns.

Since those early seasons when Cora Staunton and Laura Duryea flew the flag - both were recruited while in their 30s - the league has expanded from an initial eight to 18 teams to match the men’s competition and this year played a 10-week regular season and four weeks of finals. Thanks to a recently agreed pay deal, listed players in 2027 can expect a salary of $82,000 (€50,000), a 78 per cent increase on this year’s average.

On Sunday morning, O’Dwyer will line up alongside Dublin’s Jennifer Dunne for Brisbane, while Cork’s Erika O’Shea and Tipp’s Niamh Martin will take the field for North Melbourne. O’Dwyer will be looking to double her AFLW premiership medal collection while the other three will be hoping to join her alongside Bláithín Mackin (Armagh), Sinead Goldrick (Dublin) and Ailish Considine (Clare) on Ireland’s list of AFLW champions.

Considine - who has won two premierships with Adelaide - now plays for North Melbourne and would likely be in line for a third medal had she not suffered a late-season hamstring injury (strict AFL tradition dictates that only active grand final participants are eligible to receive winner’s medals). Meanwhile, if Dunne does add a premiership to her All Ireland, she won’t even be the first to achieve that feat, Goldrick having done so last year.

That roll of honour has been assembled remarkably fast, but the maturation of the league and increase in salaries to a viable professional income will help expand the local talent pipeline and make it unlikely that the Irish influx - this year’s contingent was a 50 per cent lift on last year’s - will continue to grow at the same pace.

However, considering the increasing prominence of a growing number of superstars and the immediate impact of so much recently arrived talent, it’s likely that AFLW recruiters will continue to see Ireland as a rich vein to tap for some time to come, making those podium Tricolours more of a probability than a rarity for a while yet.