WHEN Brid Stack fractured her neck during a recent AFLW game between the GWS Giants and the Adelaide Crows, she was blown away afterwards by the huge outpouring of support from Ireland and Australia.
Thousands of people contacted her, either personally or through social media. Stack is in Australia with her husband Cárthach and their young son Cárthach Óg, while she has also received incredible support from her Giants team-mate and former Mayo player Cora Staunton.
Stack is to have her follow-up X-Ray on Tuesday, which will give her more information on her status. The injury was so serious that Stack was only millimetres away from being paralysed.
“It was very serious but I also realise how lucky I am,” says Stack from her current hub base in Adelaide. “I’m just really thankful that I am almost fully functioning again, and that I now have a plan in place to get back to full fitness.”
She will be in a neck-brace for another six weeks, while Stack still has serious nerve damage in her right arm. Still, she will return to a base in Sydney at the end of this week, which she hopes will speed up her recovery and her attempts to yet play a part in the AFLW season.
It will be difficult but having so much support around her in Australia has made a huge difference to Stack. Her Giants team-mates couldn’t have done more, while she’s in regular contact with all 13 of the other Irish girls playing AFLW.
When Stack initially flew out to Australia, nine of the Irish girls were on the flight. “That was really nice to get to know the girls more,” says Stack. “Then when we landed, we all went our separate ways.”
The exodus of so many ladies Gaelic footballers to AFLW has become a modern phenomenon. Since the AFLW’s inception in 2017, a total of 21 Irish players have been involved.
Cavan native Laura Corrigan Duryea, who had been living in Australia, became the first Irish player to play AFLW, before being followed by Staunton. And the initial trickle has steadily flowed into a torrent.
CrossCoders, an agency that helps identify female talent capable of making the transition, have been central to getting so many Irish girls on the books of AFL clubs; the 14 players now involved hail from seven counties represented across eight clubs. It has created such interest here that TG4 are now broadcasting weekly matches and highlights.
“There are a lot of different systems but the fundamentals are still very much the same, so it lends itself well to the women's game,” says Stack. “Plus, the experience and maturity of having played senior inter-county football is also really beneficial.”
AFL Clubs are clearly recruiting Irish players for a reason. After just 13 games, Tipperary’s Aisling McCarthy, who plays for the West Coast Eagles, is now considered one of the best midfielders in the league.
The comparison is completely different to the men's game. There are a lot more teams, but Irish players have always found it much harder to break into the AFL. Platoons of young players have spent years trying to make a breakthrough and failed.
Homesickness has been a huge factor but, apart from a handful who returned home (Conor McKenna was outstanding for Tyrone in 2020), a significant proportion of those players soon disappeared when they tried to resurrect inter-county careers here.
The general response is confusion and frustration.
“You’d hear of the younger lads being scouted when they’re 16-17,” says Stack. “They’re being scouted that young because the clubs want to mould them into the players they want them to become. And that can be hard to change when they return.”
Readapting to the lifestyle when they return home can also be a huge culture shock, whereas the environment in the women's game is vastly different. The season runs for just three months. Playing AFLW also presents a huge dual-opportunity; as well as playing a professional sport in a different country in a warm climate, it also grants the leeway to play inter-county football, camogie and other sports in Ireland for the rest of the year.
“The girls are going over because they’re in a position to do so,” says Stack. “They don’t have to go over at 18 or 19 and make a life decision around it. You have to make a massive commitment to staying in Australia for a few years if you want to try and make it in the men's game.”
The opportunities are massive for Irish girls now but a lot more academies are being set up for AFLW clubs, which will deepen the pool of talent in time. There are nine teams this year but there are already talks of an expansion with at least two more teams in the league in 2022. If the season gets longer, there may not be the same scope for Irish girls.
For now though, there is. And Stack is driven to try and play some part in the season yet.