Cork stars like Erika O'Shea and Bríd Stack can thrive in Australia

AFLW clubs have seen the benefit of recruiting from Ireland so expect more Rebels to more the journey Down Under
Cork stars like Erika O'Shea and Bríd Stack can thrive in Australia

Cork's Erika O'Shea is tackled by Waterford's Maria Delahunty during the TG4 All-Ireland quarter-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Last week, a group of Irish girls playing AFLW with clubs in and around Melbourne met in the city for lunch.

As well as it being a chance to catch up, the meeting was also an opportunity to welcome some of the new Irish girls to a new country and a new sport. It was so enjoyable that the girls hope to make it a regular occurrence.

Adjusting to a new sport in a new country is always difficult. Erika O’Shea’s father John went out to Melbourne with his daughter for six weeks to help her settle in. O’Shea is now sharing a house with Vikki Wall from Meath, who also signed with North Melbourne.

Meath's Vikki Wall and Niamh Ní Chonchuir of Kerry at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Meath's Vikki Wall and Niamh Ní Chonchuir of Kerry at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

With 22 Irish girls — eight more than last year — now in the AFLW, the recruitment of O’Shea, one of the best young players in ladies football, and Wall, the modern face of ladies football, has added to the fear of the game being potentially stripped off its best players.

With the commitment levels for AFLW only going to increase as the competition gets longer and more intense, there will come a point where Irish girls will have to decide where they want to play.

That reached near saturation point this year. Of the 14 girls who played AFL earlier in 2022, only three played inter-county football this summer.

Mayo were the squad hit the hardest, with Rachel Kearns the only one of six Mayo players in the AFLW to play with the county in 2022.

Sarah Rowe, Niamh and Grace Kelly, and Aileen Gilroy chose not to do so while Cora Staunton has long stepped away from the inter-county scene. A knee injury kept Kearns out of the All-Ireland semi-final, which Mayo lost to Kerry. If all five were available, Mayo would have been a much stronger force.

Some girls from other counties in the AFLW decided to stay on in Australia while others felt the risk in returning to ladies football was too great, choosing instead to focus on rehab and prehab or upskilling their Aussie rules skills.

With the AFLW new season beginning now in August, and with the last campaign having only ended in March, it was inevitable that players had harder choices in choosing between finishing out the inter-county season or heading to Australia in time for pre-season.

An established player like Dublin’s Sineád Goldrick was able to arrange a more flexible start date but a young player like O’Shea didn’t have that luxury, which meant her having to miss the championship with Cork.

Wall and Orlagh Lally only joined up with North Melbourne and the Freemantle Dockers after Meath won the All-Ireland, but that possibility may no longer exist going forward if both players want to combine an AFLW career with playing for Meath.

The pre-season will be longer next year, which will mean that every club will want their players over in Australia by the start of June at the latest. 

AFLW clubs won’t be as lenient going forward either, particularly when many of the Irish girls need every opportunity to get up to speed with a game they’re not used to playing.

Players like Wall and Lally, who are completely new to the sport, may feel the need to stay on in Australia to train when this season does end. So where might that leave them with Meath in 2023?

With more and more players heading to Australia now, will the drain damage the ladies game in the long run? 

HEADACHE

It’s another headache for the LGFA when the vast majority of players don’t get expenses while the financial packages on offer for AFLW players has become far more lucrative.

The new collective bargaining agreement pay deal ensures the average salary for all 540 players across 18 clubs will rise by 94%.

The AFLW is expected to go fully professional by 2026. If it does, that will mean 12-month contracts, which will completely alter the dynamic of the connection between ladies football and AFLW. 

Any player playing AFLW will, like the men, have to leave ladies football completely behind them as they focus on a professional career.

That is all down the line but this debate about an increasing threat of player drain is a little overblown too.

Because of the expansion to an 18-team league, there will definitely be more room for Irish players in the next four or five years. The new teams in the AFLW will take time to develop and build a solid feeder system.

There was a massive level of player movement during the off-season, which will continue across the various squads in the coming years. But the majority of those new teams have already started underage academies, which, in time, will make those squads much stronger, and much less reliant on recruiting Irish talent. There were close to 100 players drafted last year, with five Irish girls — O’Shea, Wall, Lally, Ainé McDonagh (Galway), and Bláthin Mackin (Armagh) — recruited as rookies in the absence of a rookie draft.

Most squads also have VFL (the level below AFLW) teams now too, while the AFLW National Academy is in its sixth year of intake, with the 2022 squad made up of both top and bottom age talent from across all states and territories.

When that volume of home-grown talent becomes more pronounced in the league, it won’t mean that the demand for Irish players will cease. But it certainly won’t be as intense as it is at the moment.

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