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The top ten VFL/AFL international recruits

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Roar Guru
4th May, 2020
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It was only six weeks ago the AFL was gloating about its international appeal when former NFL punter turned podcaster Pat McAfee tweeted his adoration of his “new favourite sport”.

Now Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley is declaring international recruits may be a thing of the past, as the AFL industry adjusts to life post-coronavirus.

OK the two aren’t exactly the same or correlated but it’s funny how things change quickly in this coronavirus world and how yesterday seems so long ago.

Buckley said: “Appreciate your international players, because it’s probably going to be a lot harder for them to get into the top level and a lot harder for us to find them than it may have been in previous decades, because we spent a bit of money to do that and maybe the industry may not be able to afford it.”

During Buckley’s time as Pies coach the club plucked big Texan Mason Cox from college basketball ranks in the United States, while they’ve more recently added Irish pair Mark Keane and Anton Tohill.

There’s plenty more examples around the league, albeit with varying degrees of success.

So if we’ve seen the last of the international recruits, I thought I’d look back at the top ten imports. To clarify, we’re talking about players brought primarily Down Under to play footy, not players simply born overseas or refugees who’ve grown up playing the game in Australia.

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10. Martin Clarke (Collingwood)
Hailing from Newry, Clarke was a big under-age Gaelic football talent who joined Collingwood in 2006, with Pies assistant coach Guy McKenna dubbing him “the Irish equivalent of Nathan Buckley”. He debuted in 2007 and was nominated for the Rising Star in his second game.

Clarke ended up playing 73 games for the Pies across two stints, peaking in his early years, while he will be remembered for his ability to toe poke the oval ball off the ground into his hands.

9. Setanta Ó hAilpín (Carlton/GWS Giants)
Despite being born in Australia, Ó hAilpín’s AFL route is hugely unconventional, as a Fijian-Irishman who was a hurler with Cork. Setanta eventually moved to Australia, alongside brother Aisake, to join Carlton in 2004. “Carlos” became a fan favourite at Carlton as a key forward but he arguably is most well-known for a violent altercation in an intra-club match with teammate Cameron Cloke.

Setanta actually played 80 games for the Blues and kicked 67 goals, before heading up for GWS’s inaugural season in 2012 where he played another eight games.

8. Conor McKenna (Essendon)
Another Gaelic footballer turned AFL footballer, McKenna infamously missed Essendon’s mulligan match against Gold Coast in 2019 to attend his brother’s wedding back in Ireland. He’s also well known for performing a “solo” instead of bouncing in AFL games.

But he’s put together a good career at the Dons after arriving in 2014 as a teenager, playing 73 games with his searing pace and marauding runs off the half back a major feature. He finished fourth in Essendon’s Best and Fairest in 2019.

7. Mason Cox (Collingwood)
The big Texan basketballer gets the most headlines of any of the AFL’s current overseas recruits, given his unique frame and story. He garnered a lot of interest at the 2014 US International Combine in LA before the Pies beat four other clubs to secure him.

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He’s backed it up with some memorable moments including scoring the first goal of the game on his debut on Anzac Day in 2016 along with his three-goal haul in Collingwood’s upset preliminary final win over Richmond in 2018. He also kicked two key majors in the 2018 grand final defeat.

The 211cm big man has compiled 59 games and kicked 73 goals. We expect more to come.

Mason Cox

Mason Cox of the Magpies (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

6. Pearce Hanley (Brisbane Lions/Gold Coast)
Hanley is England-born to an Irish father and a Welsh mother but he’s been in sunny Queensland with both Brisbane and Gold Coast since 2008. Hanley is another ex-Gaelic footballer, who shone at the 2005 Under-17 International Rule series leading to his recruitment.

Hanley, now 31, amassed 129 games for the Lions as a dashing half-back, coming close to All-Australian selection in both 2013 and 2014 when he was at his peak, before being traded to the Suns in 2017 where he’s added another 32 matches.

5. Mike Pyke (Sydney)
British Columbia-born Pyke is another bigman with a unique story, recruited by the Swans in 2008 as a Canadian rugby union international (who scored a try against the All Blacks) whose professional career in Europe was halted by injuries.

With that in mind, he attempted a code switch by putting together a DVD which the Swans liked, signing him as the first international sportsperson in VFL/AFL history drafted from a non-Irish sport.

Commentator Brian Taylor called him a “joke” in pre-season but in 2010 he won Sydney’s Dennis Carroll Trophy for Most Improved Player. He went on to play in Sydney’s 2012 grand final victory and played 110 games as a ruckman. He eventually retired as a 31-year-old with injuries catching up with him.

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4. Zach Tuohy (Carlton/Geelong)
The bearded defender from Portlaoise has enjoyed a decade-long AFL career and could pass 200 games this year. Tuohy is another Gaelic footballer recruited by Carlton, back in 2010 after a four-week trial. He debuted in 2011 and by 2015 finished third in Carlton’s Best and Fairest and was named in the AFL Coaches Association All-Australian team.

The long-kicking defender moved to Geelong in 2017 and finished third in their Best and Fairest in his maiden season down the highway. He’s added another 66 games with Geelong plus plenty of finals footy to take him to 186 career games.

Also famously kicked a match-winning goal after the siren against Melbourne in 2018, which is every Aussie’s childhood dream, but probably not that of an Irish kid.

Zach Tuohy

Zach Tuohy’s after-the-siren winner was one of 2018’s best moments (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

3. Sean Wight (Melbourne)
Glasgow-born Irishman Wight was one of the original international trailblazers to VFL ranks after being scouted by Ron Barassi and Barry Richardson on an Irish tour in 1982. Another Gaelic footballer from County Kerry, Wight arrived in Melbourne in 1983 and played for the Demons for a decade. He played 150 games and became an excellent dour defender, helping the Dees qualify for the 1988 grand final which they lost.

The moustachioed defender won night flags in 1987 and 1989. Ironically he was named an All-Australian in 1987 and represented Victoria in 1988. He was made a Demons Life Member in 1994 and one of Melbourne’s ‘150 Heroes’ in 2008. Sadly passed away due to lung cancer in 2011.

2. Tadgh Kennelly (Sydney)
Another Sydney international recruit who has enjoyed premiership glory, Kerry Gaelic footballer Kennelly was a revelation at the Swans as both a player and now as an assistant coach. Kennelly enjoyed a promising under-age soccer career, signed by England’s Blackburn Rovers before returning to Gaelic football in Kerry.

He joined Sydney as a rookie in 1999 and debuted in 2001.

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Kennelly earned a Rising Star nomination and became a dashing rebound defender for the Swans. In 2005 he became the first Irish-born player to have received an AFL Premiership medallion when the Swans won the grand final over West Coast, famously producing an Irish dance on stage.

He also played in a losing grand final the following year. He returned to Gaelic football in 2009 to win a championship with Kerry, before finishing at Sydney in 2011 with 197 games.

1. Jim Stynes (Melbourne)
There was only one man who could’ve been number one on this list and that’s Jim Stynes. Unlike Pyke or Kennelly, the Irishman never won an VFL/AFL premiership but he remarkably won the 1991 Brownlow Medal after arriving in Australia in 1984 on the lure of accommodation with an additional $60 a week, clothing and $50 a game.

He is the first and only non-Australian-born VFL/AFL player to win the Brownlow Medal, has been inducted in the Australian Football Hall of Fame and has left an amazing legacy on the code having passed away in 2012.

Dublin-born Gaelic footballer Stynes was part of the early “Irish experiment”, debuting in 1987 for the Demons. He made a catastrophic error in the 1987 preliminary final when gave away a 15m penalty after the siren which cost Melbourne a spot in the grand final, but was part of the side which reached the following year’s decider.

The durable and mobile ruckman remarkably played a league record 244 consecutive matches between 1987 and 1998. He won plenty of honours, including the 1991 Brownlow Medal, 1991 Leigh Matthews Trophy, two All-Australians, four Melbourne Best and Fairests plus Victorian representation.

After his playing career, he won Victorian of the Year twice for his youth work with Reach Foundation and served as Melbourne’s president.

Honourable mentions: Colm Begley (Brisbane Lions/St Kilda), Mark O’Connor (Geelong)

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