WHEN Kerry played Galway in the league in Tuam at the end of last February, Tommy Walsh lined up at midfield for the throw-in.
As soon as referee Joe McQuillan popped up the ball, Walsh held off Tom Flynn with his old trademark hulk-power before securing possession and setting up Kerry’s first attack.
Three minutes later, Walsh won a mark just outside the 20-metre line but his point attempt went wide.
Shortly afterwards, Walsh secured possession around midfield before playing a pin-point pass into Stephen O’Brien.
Walsh spent the game rotating between midfield, the half-forward and full-forward lines in a fluid and positive display.
He didn’t score but his performance encapsulated everything about Walsh’s place within the Kerry squad moving forward in the 2019 season; flexible, powerful, imposing, effective, but still trying to find his old range.
It was Walsh’s first start for Kerry in over three years and he spent the entire 2019 season chasing his old form.
A groin injury ruled him out of the Munster championship while his four championship appearances were all as a sub.
Walsh did make a huge contribution when introduced in the second half of the drawn All-Ireland final but he had no impact when introduced in the last quarter of the replay.
At least Walsh was back.
The Kerry public were disappointed in 2015 that he never reignited his Kerry career after five years in the AFL but it was also completely unrealistic for people to expect that Walsh would return precisely as they remembered him.
The 21-year-old who kicked four brilliant points in the 2009 All-Ireland final no longer existed.
His body had been stripped down and transformed to play a different game.
The other complication was that the final two years of Walsh’s time in Australia were smothered by the kind of injury that ended Paul O’Connell’s career.
The whole readjustment took time for Walsh. Players naturally return stronger and fitter after time spent in the AFL.
They look better equipped for Gaelic football but, of the 72 Irish players who have spent time in the AFL, plenty effectively disappeared when they came home.
The general response is confusion and frustration. The assumption is that both games are broadly similar but they’re not.
The differences are subtle to the naked eye but they are technically profound; kicking style, the style of moving, how players read the game. Leaving behind a professional career is also a massive life adjustment.
And yet, despite what many term ‘lost’ GAA careers, players are still willing to run that risk in the AFL.
He isn’t gone yet but Adelaide Crows confirmed last week that they have secured a pre-season trial for Tyrone’s Cathal McShane later this month. A current All-Star, McShane was also joint-top scorer in the 2019 championship.
The risk would be all the greater again for McShane because he is 24 now, which would make him the oldest Irish player to take a chance on the AFL.
Tyrone are naturally up in arms. “It’s one-way traffic,” said Mickey Harte of the exodus of GAA players to a potential Aussie Rules career.
“It’s bonus-bonus for the AFL. It’s loss-loss to us.”
Much of Harte’s frustration focussed on the fact that former GAA players are now some of the AFL’s main scouts here.
Yet, even if the GAA tried to stop scouting trials here, they can’t stop scouts and clubs from talking to players. That’s what scouts do, no matter how many barriers or obstacles are placed in their way.
Despite the GAA operating at near professional levels now, the games are still not professional. Players have to work.
They have to go to college. If a player was offered a professional career, or the chance of a professional lifestyle – as McShane may be – why wouldn’t they consider it?
In many ways, Ciaran Kilkenny is the poster boy for any perceived tug between a career in the AFL and the GAA.
This week seven years ago, Kilkenny turned his back on an AFL career with Hawthorn In a statement released afterwards, Kilkenny said that achieving success and realising his potential as a GAA player “will always be more important to me than any of the benefits to be obtained from professional sport”.
His decision has certainly been vindicated – at still only 26, Kilkenny already has six All-Ireland medals.
Kilkenny’s decision to return home was motivated by his irreplaceable love of Gaelic games but he also had that lure of success with Dublin, something many footballers will never have with their county.
Nothing is ever guaranteed but the AFL will always offer something that the GAA cannot – a chance to play professional sport, and the opportunity to live like a professional sportsperson.
Despite the chances of Irish players making it in Australia remaining small, the attraction will always be strong.
In fact, more players are getting the chance now than ever before; 17 Irish players are currently registered with AFL clubs for the coming season, the highest number in AFL history.
Only a select few will ever make it. Injury and homesickness are significant factors but players will continue to take that chance.
The number of players opting to go traveling this year instead of committing to the inter-county game offers another insight into how players mindsets are changing.
Harte said that there were plenty of opportunities for a 24-year old on the Tyrone panel.
He is right but there will always be any amount of opportunities in Australia – and elsewhere – for young GAA players too.
And more and more want to see what the world has to offer.