AFL interest in Irish to end if latest exports fail -- Nixon
WHEN he first arrived on these shores, necks craned to see the horns peeking out from underneath Ricky Nixon's curly mop.
He was the devil incarnate, here to bleed the GAA dry of its best young talent and leave them with nothing. The only ones left would be the redheads who would turn down the AFL because they couldn't take the heat in Australia.
At the time, Nixon insisted that only a handful of Irish players would make it and that many would return to their clubs and counties bigger and stronger after a year or two of professionalism. He was brash and he ruffled plenty of feathers but, by and large, his predictions have proved accurate.
Nixon has four Irish players Down Under and another handful have returned home. A change in recruitment rules in the AFL means the 'Irish experiment', according to Nixon, will rise and fall on the performances of the likes of Tommy Walsh, Niall McKeever, Jamie O'Reilly and Conor Meredith over the next few years.
"If they don't make it, then no one will waste their time or money going to Ireland I don't think. It's just too hard," says Nixon. "A good player from Ireland is probably going to get anywhere up to AUD$50,000 (salary) more than an Australian kid and on top of that comes relocation costs, the expense of flying him out here and flights for the parents and cars, you name it.
"What the AFL have done, in a roundabout way, is say to clubs 'you make the choice between an Aussie kids who could cost as little as AUD$33,000 or an untried Irish kid who could cost AUD$120,000."
The change in rules means that Irish imports are no longer considered overseas players and but are given 'project player' status, meaning they're competing against Australian youngsters for one of the eight spots in the rookie list each club holds. Previously, an Irish player could be held outside that list.
"When Irish kids were competing against Chinese or Americans or players from other countries they'd win hands down because they're playing a game very similar to ours," Nixon continues.
"But the rules of recruitment have changed over here to the detriment of recruiting out of Ireland. I've got no doubt that's got something to do with the deal that has probably been struck behind closed doors between the AFL and the GAA to make sure that the International Rules continues."
"Three or four" AFL clubs still employ Nixon's services and they remain interested in Irish players but there's no sign of the 'brain drain' that was once feared.
"I don't see too many people apologising now. In the last three years we've had four players over," Nixon adds.
The reports from a number of Nixon's players who have returned here have been overwhelmingly positive. After Tadhg Kennelly revealed in his book that he routinely cried himself to sleep in his early days at the Sydney Swans, AFL clubs have become much better at coping with the needs of Irish players.
Colm Begley of Laois, who played 30 senior games in his time Down Under, could hardly have been more emphatic about his experience. "The four years over there were outstanding," he says. "I'm a better player for it, a better person for it and I wouldn't change it at all."
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea shared a house with established star Will Minson during his two-week stay at the Western Bulldogs and had Sunday dinner with Minson's grandmother -- considering the outlay in bringing an Irish player over, AFL clubs are ready to bend over backwards to protect their investment.
Martin Clarke's rapid ascent through the ranks sparked the recent wave of interest in Irish players, though Longford's Michael Quinn made his senior debut quicker than the Down man. Quinn's development at Essendon has slowed but Clarke's stellar first season was the exception rather than the rule.
"Marty created a misconception in the marketplace that you can just walk straight in and play. That has never been the case as far back as Jim Stynes and Tadhg Kennelly, who both took two years before they played senior football," adds Nixon.
"Marty got by on a fair bit of skill and nous and good football understanding. But if he came out now (as an 18-year-old) I can tell you he would definitely take two years. The game has changed too much in the last three years."
Nixon is due back here in February and two unnamed players are heading out for a trial with a lower-league club outside the AFL but after that trip, it remains to be seen how much of a presence Nixon and his 'Flying Start' agency will maintain here.
"It's something we're looking at. The clubs have been very negative towards it with the way the rules have changed and the huge expense of bringing Irish players over," he concludes.
There's still no sign of his horns.