Next three years could see Irish involvement in AFLW peak and then fall

Clash with GAA season not slowing down flow of players such as Cork’s Erika O’Shea

Cork’s Erika O’Shea started seriously contemplating the idea of heading to Australia thinking she could double job, that she could complete Cork’s championship campaign as an amateur before embarking on a professional Aussie Rules career.

Come January when Australian clubs came calling, the landscape shifted and she learned of the AFLW schedule change. Instead of a season that starts in the Irish winter, she would have to travel over in June for an August start. This year’s All-Ireland football final is on July 31st.

It led to a tough decision, the opportunity to play both championship and AFL was no longer. O'Shea made the call; she is not a part of the Cork panel that recently reached the Munster final and instead will be heading to Australia in the coming weeks. Her club has not officially announced her signing yet, but reports down under suggest she will be linking up with Meath's Vikki Wall at North Melbourne.

Despite more tough decisions having to be made, we have not seen a drop in the number of players heading over. Clubs have to wait until the AFLW collective bargaining agreement (CBA) which expired in April is renewed to announce signings, but the expectation is that as many as 20 Irish players will be involved this year, up from 14 last season.

Michael Currane is an AFL talent ID and elite skills coach in Ireland, he links players wanting to travel with clubs in Australia. Despite already working with more players on the cusp of contracts this season, he actually believes that the number would be even higher if players did not have to sacrifice their county season.

“Going from 14 to 20 is a phenomenal jump itself,” he explains.”As well as the girls who are going now in the next month or two, I’m working with a much larger group of elite Irish players who are looking towards next season and beyond. Some of those would likely have gone this year if the dates had stayed as they were.

“When the dates moved forward, a lot of players said they would wait until next year having already committed to their county team. You have some examples of players who are not going to get signed staying until the end of the championship, for example Vikki Wall has stated she’s not going anywhere until Meath are finished.

“She would be an exception rather than the norm - that she would be allowed to come out after. That’s a nod to her status as one of the best players in the country.”

Currane strongly hints at the number of Irish players choosing pro careers over intercounty seasons increasing. Several other factors could also force that figure to rise. This year sees the total number of AFLW clubs grow from 14 to 18. The number of games is likely to increase as well, going from 10 rounds of fixtures to 18 by 2025.

Once the CBA is confirmed, and that could be any day, we'll see a raft of of signing announcements"

This necessitates more financially lucrative contracts as well as more full-time ones. At present, players are contracted per number of seasons rather than calendar years.

Worrying picture

A conflicting schedule, more games, more playing spots, more money and more control over players for AFLW clubs. It’s an appealing career path that comes with it the pitfall of no more intercounty action for the Irish that choose to travel.

It’s a worrying picture for county managers, especially with the calibre of players such as footballer of the year Wall and All-Star O’Shea now signing up.

That isn’t necessarily the case, as far as Currane sees it. The AFLW is only into its seventh year as a professional league. The talent pool of local Australian players is still developing, whereas amateur GAA players have been playing essentially at a professional standard for longer.

“The homegrown pool of players is rapidly expanding from a stage where AFLW started seven seasons ago, there was little to no existing pool of talent in Australia. Girls who were 12/13 at that time are now 19 or 20 and becoming footballers, they’ve been playing for those last few years.

“If the number of Irish hits 20 this season, it’s not going to peak beyond more than 25 over the next few seasons I’d imagine. Going forward it may become increasingly harder for Irish players to secure spots as that pool of talent that is readily available locally to the AFL clubs increases.”

Once the need to bring skilled Irish players over to fill the talent gap lessens, the process of travelling to fight for opportunities will just get more complicated. Individual abilities and mindsets will dictate who stays and who goes, rather than any identifiable trends.

O’Shea, aged just 19 year-old, will become the youngest Irish woman to play professionally in the AFL.

“Being the youngest player is a cool thing to say, so that drew me in,” she acknowledges.

Her mindset became apparent in interviews with teams earlier this year where she convinced them that she was ready to move across the world, despite her age and the physical and mental development required.

“I was young going onto the Cork seniors. Clubs were asking me about that, when did I join the adult team. I said I was 17 when I joined, I didn’t know many of the girls at all and I went up as the only minor called up that time that stayed on the panel. I was so young and ended up starting that year so they asked me about that.

“They want to see if you’re mentally able to take up another sport. You’re obviously not going to be the best at the sport the first few months because it’s a completely different game to Gaelic football. You go from being a talented GAA star and you have to go over and adjust to a different sport. These girls have been playing for years so you go to being one of the worst.

“I’m petite compared to some of the other girls so gym is something that I’ll be working on - I will need a few weight sessions I’d say but I’ve been working hard in Castle Hotel gym for the time being.

“Some of the things that will translate over, though, will be my speed and my fitness; being able to run for long periods of time. The pace of the game would really suit me.”

O’Shea is an example of the structural AFLW changes not being a deterrent. There will be others for whom that isn’t the case, especially as more developments come down the line. What is for certain is that her name won’t be the last we hear called by Aussie teams in the short term.

“Once the CBA is confirmed, and that could be any day, we’ll see a raft of of signing announcements,” affirms Currane. “Once that’s all confirmed we’ll see announcements in relation to the existing Irish players but more excitingly, the new players.”

The immediate window of opportunity for Irish players in the AFLW is growing, but it could well a start to close again in the not too distant future. Don’t be surprised if the next three years becomes the peak of Irish involvement down under.

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