Aussie Rules the roost


The recent movements of players between the two codes of GAA and Australian Rules have positive and negative repercussions for our native game, writes Martin Scanlon

With the recent announcement of Kerry forward Tommy Walsh’s imminent departure to St Kilda to begin a career in Aussie Rules, debate has reignited over the dangers AFL recruitment poses to gaelic football. Many intercounty managers have been outspoken in their criticism of the techniques used by the Australian clubs to attract players, most notably Tyrone manager, Mickey Harte. But how real and how new is this threat?

Kerry’s All-Star Tommy Walsh is the latest face to depart for a career in the AFL
Kerry’s All-Star Tommy Walsh is the latest face to depart for a career in the AFL

Some commentators would have you believe that droves upon droves of young superstar GAA players have been abandoning their native isle for Australia’s sandy beaches. This is far from the truth. In the 2009 season, only eleven Irish players (four seniors and seven rookies) were registered to play in the AFL premiership. Of these seniors only one, Setanta Ó hAilpín, is currently contracted to play again in 2010. Both Marty Clarke and Colm Begley now return after relatively short periods and Tadhg Kennelly is still uncommitted over a return to Sydney.

Admittedly a minor, but not insignificant, proportion of GAA players have been approached over the possibility of switching codes. Amongst others, Kerry’s David Moran will travel to Australia for a try-out over the winter while recently crowned Young Footballer of the Year, Michael Murphy of Donegal, has toyed with offers in the recent past. It is fair to say that some the cream will be lost, albeit only temporarily.

Few emigrants have succeeded in building long playing careers in the oval ball game, with Kennelly, Jim Stynes and now O hAilpín the notable exceptions, though the GAA and the players themselves ultimately benefit from periods spent Down Under.

Begley recently described the de facto exchanges between the Gaelic and Aussie Rules codes as a “win-win situation”, explaining that Irish players return with a more professional ethos, better athletic ability and improved skills. Kennelly and Michael Shiels of Cork, who both featured in this year’s football decider, are two prominent examples of this.

Some exposure to Aussie Rules may even potentially help in reviving the decline in basic skill levels in gaelic football. With the mark in Aussie Rules, a premium is placed on the ability to kick pass and field the ball. This may help Gaelic football revert somewhat to its more traditional and more attractive ‘catch and kick’ gameplan, rather than the present over reliance on the hand pass. There’s no better way to increase the appeal of the game than to increase the skill level and thereby the entertainment value.

However, though the possibility of a switch to the southern hemisphere is a relatively modern issue, losing players to other sports has been a constant throughout the history of the GAA. Innumerable potential All-Stars have found success in other sports.

If Shay Given had not been distracted by the lure of professional soccer, surely he would be currently playing in goal for Donegal. Ireland scrum-half, Tomas O’Leary, won an All-Ireland minor hurling title with Cork at the beginning of the decade. In reality, the threat of Aussie Rules is relatively minor when other sports are taken into account.

The GAA hierarchy still has a major role to play in ensuring adequate protections are in place for new international recruits. Through the International Rules connection with the AFL, the GAA are in a better position than most to negotiate and pressure their fellow governing body for guidelines on how recruitment is carried out and how players are treated once they travel to Australia.

Currently the GAA is burying its head in the sand, refusing to talk to one of the more infamous recruiting agents, Ricky Nixon. The GAA owes it to these young players to help them out as much as they possibly can. Most of these players have been juggling commitments to at least three or fours teams for years, combining minor, under-21 and senior intercounty teams with club commitments.

What sort of compensation have they received for this contribution? Maybe some form of expenses. The grants scheme operated by the Government and the GPA is being considerably slashed this year, meaning reduced grants for a smaller number of players. When faced with this alternative, why would any player, when offered the opportunity of a professional sporting career, turn it down in favour of a damp February challenge match in Dungarvan?