Tadhg Kennelly back to assess Aussie Rules hopefuls

Donegal's Stephen McBrearty and Kilkenny's Darragh Joyce among those vetted

Tadhg Kennelly was back in Ireland at the weekend, seeking out young GAA talent capable of making it as a professional footballer in the AFL.

The former Kerry and Sydney Swans player is one of the few Gaelic footballers to have made a successful and lasting transition to Australian Rules since the start of the 'Irish experiment' in 1982. Today he is the international talent co-ordinator for the AFL and from last Friday to Sunday the conductor of the third ever European AFL 'combine' hosted in DCU.

Recently, players such as Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny and Westmeath's John Heslin have earned AFL contracts only to return home after less than four months. Others who have returned in the past 12 months include the Down duo of Marty Clarke and Caolan Mooney.

So for Kennelly, the challenge now is to highlight those who can combine their obvious talents with the mental attributes necessary to stick it out Down Under.


“I’m not really too concerned with the skill component, because the majority of Irish players are very, very skilful – I think it’s more about their actual character and how they keep themselves because it’s a big move in so far as how they’re going to handle being away from home. That’s probably the biggest thing with Irish players.

“We now do a psyche profiling to profile how they’ll cope being away from home and for all the other components of being a professional footballer and how will they handle that.

“It is bloody hard and it’s also hard to get clubs to buy into recruiting because the numbers don’t stack up well as far as recruiting Irish players and them making the transition.

“What we try and do is get as close as we can as far as physical attributes, as far as mental attributes and just try and get to know the character of the young fella. His background, his mother, his father, his brothers, his sisters, all that kind of stuff, gaining enough data on players so you can actually make a calculated decision or so we can help the clubs make the calculated decision rather.”

One of those calculated decisions was made by the St Kilda club in 2009 when they offered Kerry All-Ireland winner and All Star Tommy Walsh a two-year contract. Despite making five senior appearances after later transferring to Kennelly's former team Sydney Swans, his five years were hampered by injuries and he's decided to return home to the Kingdom for the 2015 season.

Sleepless nights

Kennelly knows exactly what lies ahead for Walsh, he returned home himself in 2009 to win an All-Ireland with Kerry.

“My body, I suppose, had almost adapted to being in the AFL and the kicking, I struggled a small bit with my skills components and the game coming back into it.

“The biggest thing is – and I’ve said this to Tommy – is for people not to put a whole lot of pressure on him. I probably felt in 2009 that it was the most pressurised year of my life, and I’d spent 10 years of playing professional football and I’d felt nowhere near the pressure of an an amateur footballer playing for Kerry – there’s your argument its crazy stuff. You’re dealing with playing in front of 80,000 every week yet the pressure that’s put on you here is just immense and I had a lot of sleepless nights that year.

“I think you put a lot of expectation on yourself too, I was a bit different to Tommy, he has a few All-Irelands and I hadn’t and I was 29 and I wanted to win one. But there is a big expectation on Gaelic footballers and I think we get a small bit confused with what a soccer player does and a rugby player does in Ireland and we put them in the same bracket. But at the end of the day they’ve got to rock up on Monday morning and be a butcher, be a postman, be a teacher, whatever it is that you’re dealing with the public.

“When you’re a professional footballer you’re hidden and cocooned from dealing with the public and if you play a poor game you don’t have to front up Monday morning in front of them.”

Walsh, now 26, formed a lethal inside partnership for Kerry with fellow 'twin tower' Kieran Donaghy with Kerry. Yet with five years of professionalism behind him Kennelly cannot see his former team-mate being consigned to the edge of the square on his return.

"I'd see it as highly unlikely that you'd see him playing at full forward, for me I think he's got the running capabilities of anyone now. I think he'd probably outrun Donnchadh Walsh who's probably Kerry's fittest player. He's just a beast of a man.

“You will probably see him anywhere from centre back to midfield to on the 40, for me he could easily be out and about and because of his size he’d be the biggest man in the competition by a long shot.”

The prospect

Just as Walsh, the son of dual Kerry All Star, Seán, returns to the delight of the Kerry faithful, the county face the the prospect of losing another Kerry son of pedigree in

Killian Spillane

, a nephew of all-time great Pat. He is one of four Kerry All-Ireland winning minors who were amongst the 22 trialists on show over the weekend, tested for athletic and psychological traits and during match simulation tasks.

Other trialists hailed from Denmark and England, while Louth's Ryan Burns, Donegal's Stephen McBrearty a younger brother of Paddy, the "very, very impressive" Kilkenny minor hurling captain Darragh Joyce who plays football with his school Good Counsel, and Dublin youngster Eoin McHugh were among the notable attendees.

Eamon Donoghue

Eamon Donoghue

Eamon Donoghue is a sports journalist with The Irish Times