IN late August, Orla O’Dwyer had the perennial dilemma of a dual ladies’ GAA player: The Tipperary ladies’ footballers faced an All-Ireland senior relegation final against Tyrone, in Kinnegad, just 24 hours before Tipp played Galway in the All-Ireland senior camogie semi-final in Croke Park.
O’Dwyer chose the camogie. Tipp narrowly lost to Galway, but, to soften the blow for O’Dwyer, the footballers won. Two years earlier, O’Dwyer had a choice to play an All-Ireland camogie semi-final against Kilkenny or an All-Ireland intermediate football quarter-final against Sligo, both on the same day. The football management took the decision out of O’Dwyer’s hands and released her to the camogie team.
It’s the issue that just won’t go away in the ladies’ game, but O’Dwyer is used to scrambling, because she has already returned to Australia to commence her third year with the Brisbane Lions. In April, O’Dwyer became the second Irish girl to win an AFLW title.
“I don’t know how much longer it’s going to keep working with the seasons not overlapping too much,” O’Dwyer said. “But I’ll keep doing it as long as it works for both.”
That equation, though, is getting more difficult to balance for Irish girls playing in the AFLW. In August, the AFLW announced their expansion, which boasts all 18 existing AFL clubs, with a licence awarded to four extra clubs: Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, and Sydney.
An 18-team professional competition for women is a huge step towards inclusion, but the numbers have backed up the grounds for expansion: Participation figures in the sport have doubled in the five years of the AFLW.
The influx of so many Irish players — 14 were contracted last year — has added to the attraction of the AFLW for Irish supporters, with TG4 showing games. The expansion will increase that scope now, but, conversely, it may also restrict the number of players travelling over from Ireland.
With pre-season starting in September, and the season in December — two months earlier — the timing is more awkward for players still involved at inter-county level, or intent on playing with their clubs in the county, provincial, and All-Ireland championships.
With the commitment for AFLW only going to increase as the competition gets longer and more intense, and more ‘prehab’ work required in the off-season and pre-season, Irish girls will have to decide where they want to play.
“Playing professional sport in Australia will now require a longer-term plan, a bigger commitment,” said Ailsh Considine, the first Irish girl to win an AFLW title. “We have had the luxury of living in one country for six months and living in another for six months. But, going forward, it will have to be either Gaelic football or camogie, or the AFL.”
Considine made her decision this year, opting not to play for the Clare ladies’ footballers. “The risk of getting injured and the hassle that might follow in getting back to Australia swayed my thinking,” said Considine.
Considine wasn’t the only one to make that calculation. Aileen Gilroy also opted out of playing with Mayo this year. Having totted up 17 games and impressed in defence with North Melbourne, Gilroy has returned to Australia for her third campaign.
More Irish girls are prepared to play AFLW. Over the summer, Mayo’s Rachel Kearns signed AFLW terms with Geelong. Kearns played soccer for Ireland’s U19s, as well as lining out for Galway WFC in this year’s Women’s National League, before returning to Mayo when preparation for the new ladies’ football season began.
It’s harder to sustain that commitment when the club season drags on. Foxrock-Cabinteely got their Dublin senior championship off to the perfect start two weeks ago, in defeating Kilmacud Crokes, last year’s finalists, in the opening round. Foxrock-Cab are chasing seven Dublin and Leinster titles in a row, but they will have to do so this season without their leading player, Sinéad Goldrick, who has returned to Melbourne Demons.
In March, Goldrick tore her hamstring off the bone in an an AFLW game, which required three surgeries and six months of rehab, before she played for Dublin again in the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo.
It’s not getting any easier to sustain games in different codes, but Cavan and Collingwood player, Aishling Sheridan, said that the recruitment of Irish players will only increase.
“With four new teams coming on, that means that 30 new players will be needed for each team,” said Sheridan.
Fourteen girls have signed up again for next season, with Dublin’s Niamh McEvoy opting out and Rachel Kearns opting in. Bríd Stack is one of those 14, and is heading back to the GWS Giants for a second season. A hard lockdown in Sydney has delayed her return to Australia until mid-October, but it has given Stack time to get another couple of rounds of championship in with St Val’s.
In the future, though, combining club — and even inter-county — with AFLW will be harder.