The AFL is tempting Ireland’s true promise

Ben Somerford Roar Guru

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    Irishman, Tommy Walsh, runs laps during a St Kilda training session at Linen House Oval in Moorabbin, Melbourne. Slattery Images

    Irishman, Tommy Walsh, runs laps during a St Kilda training session at Linen House Oval in Moorabbin, Melbourne. Slattery Images

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (128)

    • October 22nd 2009 @ 2:46am
      Billo said | October 22nd 2009 @ 2:46am | ! Report

      It would be interesting to see how young Gaelic Football stars would adapt to the two rugby codes.
      I don’t know enough about the Gaelic game to answer the question, but their athleticism and toughness suggests they might make the grade.

    • October 22nd 2009 @ 3:28am
      Grandpabhaile said | October 22nd 2009 @ 3:28am | ! Report

      They do already. Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey, and current Irish international full-back Rob Kearney have all played the game, and have great high-ball hands and kicking.

      GAA coaches are now being used in the UK and SA to teach some of these skills to clubs and players.

    • October 22nd 2009 @ 5:20am
      Michael C said | October 22nd 2009 @ 5:20am | ! Report

      Some of the comments over in Ireland include a recognition at least that the kids that head downunder to Australia are heading off for an adventure that you can’t deny them, and, as IS the case, there’s an awful lot of them coming back. There’s only been a small handful of success stories but the lure of the potential gem uncovered ‘outside’ the draft/trade process is the draw for AFL clubs. County Kerry knows well enough that this year they had Tadgh Kennelly back ‘home’ to help win the All Ireland cup.

      The lure BACK to Gaelic Footy is probably stronger for the kids who head to Australia to play AFL rather than those who stay in Ireland to play Rugby or go to England to play soccer. It’s probably better for the GAA that they encourage kids to have a crack in Australia. And of course, when the International Rules games are on, there’s a semi regular chance to get the best of the Irish AFL guys to pull on the Irish jersey.

      This guy Walsh is interesting. And he’s got two younger brothers who show real serious talent too.

      • Roar Guru

        October 22nd 2009 @ 7:07am
        Redb said | October 22nd 2009 @ 7:07am | ! Report

        There have been a few come over with promise but just dont make the grade. Perhaps they’re not the best Gaelic footballers though whereas this kid looks to have the goods. Isn’t ‘potential’ bleeding marvellous. 🙂

        One quote I heard from the recruiters was that he Carey like with the use of body, demanding of space, contests the ball, a strong mark who can kick across his body on the run.

        Will be interesting.


        • October 22nd 2009 @ 4:54pm
          Mushi said | October 22nd 2009 @ 4:54pm | ! Report

          As someone who follow US sports clsoely the “insert super star player”-like comaprission always amaze me, yet still get me a little hooked in

      • Roar Guru

        October 22nd 2009 @ 7:27am
        Pippinu said | October 22nd 2009 @ 7:27am | ! Report

        I think it’s fair to say that there is a big jump from showing potential as a young Gaelic player to making the grade at AFL level, recalling that many are starting behind your average 18 years old draftee/rookee.

        In 25 years of the Irish experiment, we’ve had two absolute stand outs: Stynes and Kenneally.

        Apart from being outstanding young Gaelic players, the common thread is that they had great athleticism, showed great character and mental strength and hung in there for a few years while learning the game – it doesn’t happen overnight, and we all understand that it’s the sort of thing that can’t happen overnight.

        It’s a long, hard and sometimes lonely road – it’s not for everyone.

    • October 22nd 2009 @ 6:44am
      Firestarter Bob said | October 22nd 2009 @ 6:44am | ! Report

      If an overseas sport kept coming into the AFL ranks and signing AFL players, there would be cries of how unfair it is from one end of Victoria to the other. The sport of AFL cares for nothing but itself. Go ahead and rip the heart out of the Gaelic game, then go and feed on something else.

      • October 22nd 2009 @ 7:31am
        Elbusto said | October 22nd 2009 @ 7:31am | ! Report

        Well said Bob. The fact is that the GAA, like the AFL, has nowhere to go as Internationally and so it has no future. Unfortunately for the GAA it has no power to fight off the Kleptomaniacs like Demetriou and the AFL who will quite happily devour the GAA while pretending to work with them to develop the nonsense that is ‘International Rules’. Sad but true.

        • October 22nd 2009 @ 8:04am
          Michael C said | October 22nd 2009 @ 8:04am | ! Report

          The GAA – Gaelic Footy – is wide open to soccer and rugby already. And from those codes, the GAA get’s nothing back.

          The AFL is a lesser evil bed partner.

          For a few obvious reasons :
          A. the 85% Gaelic compromise rules International Rules series (draw very well in Ireland)
          B. it’s a far, far bigger leap to head to Australia than it is to have a crack at Rugby or Soccer ‘at home’ or just over in England
          C. most the Irish kids to head to Australia have been ‘back home’ within 3 years.
          D. the AFL is a single nation sport as well, this means there’s a greater respect for Gaelic and the challenges it faces and the cultural value it presents.

          Rugby and soccer don’t offer this package. It’s pretty pathetic for Rugby/Soccer fans to go at the AFL on this.

          After all – the GAA is still amateur. Now, if the AFL were still amateur then it’d be fairly obvious that more guys might seek to follow money trails into other sports. And, who can deny a fellow that opportunity??

          • October 22nd 2009 @ 10:51am
            Michael C said | October 22nd 2009 @ 10:51am | ! Report

            What are you on about??

            the GAA get nothing out of players playing Rugby or Soccer. Oh, yeah, it’s kinda local for the ‘fan’….who, loses players from his country Gaelic team, but, can seem them on tele playing Rugger. Whoopee. That doesn’t help the GAA who never see them come back.

            The GAA get’s something at least from the relationship with the AFL. Part of the relationship is parent-child, in that the AFL is the professional league (parent) that attracts the odd player from the GAA (child). At the end of the day, of 20 or 30 guys to have a go, only Stynes, Wight, Kennelly and Clarke have ‘made it’, and Clarke is heading back to take up teaching now after only a couple of years anyway!!!

            And, part of it is a peer relationship – – at the International Rules level, that provides both codes with the opportunity otherwise not available to travel and represent their country (and their culturally iconic and pretty unique code).

            The AFL sure ain’t flawless, and I agree with Redb that player manager Ricky Nixon seems a bit of a maverick, but, he is NOT an employee of the AFL, he’s in it for himself.

            So, an Irish fan might be able to make the best of a bad situation….but, ask the GAA coaches where they’d rather lose their players to??

        • October 22nd 2009 @ 2:58pm
          Dave1 said | October 22nd 2009 @ 2:58pm | ! Report

          No one had a problem with Victorians trying to do it to South Australians in the 80’s.

          There was no sympathy for South Australians at all.

          So I don’t think anyone should come crying to South Australians now. The Irish are not more special than South Australia.

    • October 22nd 2009 @ 7:42am
      LK said | October 22nd 2009 @ 7:42am | ! Report

      This is probably a stupid question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Why don’t players go the other way – AFL to GAA? I know Ireland is amateur and yada yada. But surely a player who has achieved everything in AFL, is financially secure and is after a bit of life experience would be interested. Just wondering….

      • Roar Guru

        October 22nd 2009 @ 7:52am
        Redb said | October 22nd 2009 @ 7:52am | ! Report


        Mostly the amatuer v professional thing, but I suppose its possible for an AFL player once his career is over to give it a go, I doubt though they would have the leg speed to play Gaelic footy at the highest level by this stage.

        Bit similiar to when union was amatuer and it lost some of its best players to rugby league but not vice-versa. “Union makes them league takes them”. Of course the roles have been partly reversed these days as union with dollars chases the talent.

        Usually dollars figure in the decision.


        • Roar Guru

          October 22nd 2009 @ 9:22am
          AndyRoo said | October 22nd 2009 @ 9:22am | ! Report

          Once you have finished playing at the top level for 10 plus years and the toll that takes on your body I understand why most players don’t want to go down to a lower level for less money (or in this case nothing).

          There are exceptions with some footballers going to the MLS or the HAL for a bit of an adventure.
          Fowler definitely doesn’t need the money judging by his property portfolio and has been offered more money to go back.
          But if I had played AFL football for 10 years even if I did have anything left in my legs it’s probably time to look after the kids and visit Ireland in a more relaxing manner.

          Oh and League players couldn’t have a stint at rugby at the end of their career because until approx 1996 playing a game of Rugby league meant you were banned for life from Playing Rugby Union. Even at junior ages guys like Wally Lewis would have to come up with a fake name in order to play both.

          • Roar Guru

            October 22nd 2009 @ 9:29am
            Redb said | October 22nd 2009 @ 9:29am | ! Report

            unlike the soccer analogy with Fowler, the game is completely different though, round ball, no tackling, etc.

          • Roar Guru

            October 22nd 2009 @ 10:22am
            Pippinu said | October 22nd 2009 @ 10:22am | ! Report

            It’s a good point AndyRoo makes – 12 years of AFL – your joints are pretty shot, why on Earth go and learn a new game for no money???

            Relatively sedate activities like tennis, golf and shuffleboard make much more sense!

            I think redb is also right that beyond the age of 30, there’s no way an AFL player can keep up with these Gaelic footballers – they’re damn fast!! (and that’s before we even worry about the ball and the very different rules).

      • October 22nd 2009 @ 7:59am
        Firestarter Bob said | October 22nd 2009 @ 7:59am | ! Report

        Scared of failure is the primary reason. The other is that they see playing GAA as “lower” status.

        • Roar Guru

          October 22nd 2009 @ 10:25am
          Pippinu said | October 22nd 2009 @ 10:25am | ! Report

          fear of failure may have been one reason why you never put your name in the draft.

      • October 22nd 2009 @ 8:09am
        Michael C said | October 22nd 2009 @ 8:09am | ! Report

        By that point in time, most players are settling down with young families,

        more concerned with living near to the grandparents,

        and financially/socially looking to establish their post footy careers and get kids established in school.

        The more financially secure guys are probably heading straight into coaching/media careers domestically as well.

        the ‘globetrotter’ type personalities probably headed off playing soccer or basketball 15 years earlier and are somewhere like Turkey or Russia enjoying that life experience…..but missing out on others.

        btw – Gaelic is no as physical, but, IS very quick. Not really the sport to play as a semi-retirement option…….and, of course,…the Irish are madmen!! (well, firey anyway.)

    • October 22nd 2009 @ 8:23am
      Firestarter Bob said | October 22nd 2009 @ 8:23am | ! Report

      What happened to that Sydney Celtics idea?

      • October 22nd 2009 @ 9:20am
        Michael C said | October 22nd 2009 @ 9:20am | ! Report

        in the Sydney Womens footy league, there’s the Bondi Shamrocks, and team of Irish women playing footy.

        perhaps laying the foundations???

        off their website:
        “This is it, the first ever AFL team full of Irish ex-pats, and based here in the home away from home ‘County Bondi’. We are gearing up to join the Sydney Womens AFL competition in 2009 and taking on the Aussies at their game. ”

        they lost their first couple of games to the Newtown Breakaways and the Western Wolves, but, after that became almost unbeatable. They made the semi finals, but went down to the Balmain Dockers. As it was Newtown and West’s competed in the GF. Newtown won a highly competitive GF by 13 points.

        They (theShamrocks) are made up of primarily Irish ex-pats, with a Gaelic Football, Camogie or Rugby background, with a few native Aussies and the odd Kiwi thrown in.

        In their inaugural season, they have already had Sports Bar and a cocktail named in their honour, five players were selected to represent NSW at the women’s AFL State Games in Perth, and had six play for Sydney in the rookie team against the touring USA Freedom team.

        actually – back on the blokes – , in the BCAFL in Vancouver, there’s an ‘Irish’ team as well, and there are moves to form an IRish team in the Melbourne VAFA (would have to start in the Club 18s).

        • January 28th 2010 @ 8:45am
          Kiwi said | January 28th 2010 @ 8:45am | ! Report

          Thanks Michael. Yep the girls are keen to give it another shot, and go one better this year, and we are on the hunt for a new coach to inject some new ideas and development into the side for the 2010 season.

          The girls are keen, and already out doing their speed and fitness work, so any keen coaches, come along and share the vision!

          The Gaelic skills are easily adapted to the AFL game, and these girls certainly have the Irish fire in their bellies!!!

          And yes, in time we would love to grow and have a mens team doing the same in the Sydney AFL. Maybe Tadgh could coach them once he retires from the Swans again.

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