The AFL is tempting Ireland’s true promise
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To little fanfare earlier this week, St Kilda secured the services of an Irish lad named Tommy Walsh. But behind the scenes this was a big, big decision for the 2008 Young Gaelic Player of the Year. And in the end, it says a lot about the lure of the big-business, professional game we call Aussie Rules.
Walsh is a son of a gun, who won Gaelic football’s equivalent to the Rising Star award in 2008, so his defection to AFL has rocked the Irish game, whilst also pleasing the premiership-hunting Saints.
In fact, Saints list manager Matthew Drain labelled Walsh ‘the best credentialed player to come out of Ireland’ so this is a big deal.
Anyway, as a lover of all sports, I try to keep an eye on what’s happening in the Gaelic Athletic Association’s (GAA) All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, although I’ll admit I’m hardly knowledgeable about the competition.
Nevertheless, witnessing ex-Sydney Swan Tadhg Kennelly help Kerry defeat Cork at Croke Park in the All-Ireland final this year, made me aware of his county teammate Tommy Walsh after he booted 4 crucial points in the decisive match.
But Walsh, 21, is someone who has been known in AFL circles a lot longer than just that match.
St Kilda had been chasing his signature for some time (after player agent Ricky Nixon identified the talent) bringing Walsh out on a one-week trial in December last year, but the Kerry youngster resisted their courtship preferring to stay in his native Ireland.
After all, Walsh was part of a large family of Gaelic football stars and he was ready to follow in the footsteps of his father, Sean, who was a seven-time All-Ireland winner between 1978 and 1986.
Walsh hails from the south-west region of Kerry which is the most successful county in the Irish game and where bloodlines are an important part.
Former Kerry player and popular Gaelic football broadcaster Weeshie Fogarty claims this family tradition is ‘the secret of Kerry’, who have won a record 36 All-Ireland championships.
And Walsh, who won the prestigious honour of being awarded the GAA’s Young Footballer of the Year in 2008, before winning the All-Ireland championship in 2009 with Kerry, was destined for big things in Ireland.
But St Kilda’s enticing offer was enough to tempt him away from Kerry, all the way to Melbourne to play a foreign game in a foreign land.
It is believed Walsh will earn about $50,000 a year on a two-year contract with the Saints, while back in Ireland, Gaelic football isn’t even a professional sport and the youngster had actually taken a year off his studies in IT to work in an engineering firm during 2009.
Upon the announcement of his deal to join St Kilda, Walsh commented, “It was a very tough decision … but it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I’m not under any illusions about what’s ahead and hopefully it will work out.”
Indeed, the opportunity to play professionally, earn good money and live abroad is something which has enticed young Irish talent to Australian shores in recent years with players like Kennelly, Setanta O’hAilpin, Marty Clarke, Kevin Dyas and Colm Begley following Melbourne’s Jim Stynes and Sean Wight a decade or so earlier.
But Dyas and Clarke’s recent departures represents a trend of Irish players returning home after a few years in Australia, and Kerry coach Jack O’Connor believes Walsh will be back.
Speaking about Walsh, as well as another potential St Kilda addition from Kerry, David Moran, O’Connor said, “The fact is there are more people coming back from Australia than are going out there. One way or the other, they’ll be back playing for Kerry in the future.”
But Nixon believes Walsh could be a template for change, saying, “Too many clubs are in a rush and they don’t think about it long term. Tommy has had a year now to think about it and plan it.
“It certainly has created a bit of a template. We’re not going to rush out and sign a kid this week and stick him on a plane. That’s not going to happen anymore.”
And the well-known player agent has tipped big things for Walsh who he rates highly; “Hopefully he will revolutionise Irish players in the AFL. Most, if not all, have been running midfielders but Tommy is a forward and no Irish player has come to play forward in the AFL … he is a powerhouse player.”
Clearly, though, Irish players in the AFL have been a tad hit-and-miss, but the Saints’ effort to lure a true talent to our shores could provide the template for success and Walsh’s progress will be monitored with keen interest.
And you can count on that interest travelling beyond Australia, all the way back to Ireland where Walsh’s progress will be big news for the GAA who just can’t compete with the AFL’s temptations.