Thursday 23 March 2017

Giants step allowing Walsh to make great leap forward

The GAA's loss is Australian rules' gain as Cavan's Nicholas Walsh takes on a new challenge, writes Damian Lawlor

NICHOLAS WALSH was christened a prodigal son upon returning to Cavan after three years in the AFL so he's not sure what he'll be labelled now.

Walsh took a ticket out of Ireland after captaining the country's under 17 team in the international rules series and, after being recruited by Melbourne Demons, spent those three seasons trying to make a breakthrough. Much was expected of the powerful youngster who was swiftly handed the number 12 jersey, but he subsequently spent most of his term Down Under battling injury and there was no progress further than the reserve team of Sandringham.

It was pointless looking a brooding picture of muscled health with no possibility of game time. Eventually, the club delisted him.

"I didn't give returning home a second thought," he says. "I was having a horrible time with injury down there and wasn't getting the chance to recover properly so I came back to Cavan and I was delighted to do so."

Yet, a large chunk of him never left Australia behind. These past few years, aside from resurrecting his GAA career, he still found himself bound up in a reverence for the oval-ball game. He loved the professional lifestyle, enjoyed the people, didn't mind the weather and formed life-lasting friendships that would never leave him.

But coming back to Ireland was easy too. He breezed back onto the Cavan senior team, spent five years working for the county board as a GAA development officer before joining Croke Park as children's games development officer.

An inter-county footballer with professional experience and administrative nous, Walsh was set to quickly join the west wing of the Croker hierarchy after helping to steer his department into their current heady position.

Apart from his influence at Cumann na mBunscol and Go-Games level, he had been working hard on the 'Respect' initiative for youngsters, trying to change the perception of the referee as an antagonistic force. That drive was launched last year, placing an emphasis on kids working with rather than against match officials. He also focused on educating children on the importance of protocol, like shaking hands with referees before and after games, as well as respecting decision-making during a match.

Yet, he knew there was something else for him and it lay on the other side of the world..

"For four Decembers in a row I self-funded trips back to Oz for two reasons," he explains, letting slip a knowing smile. "I have a core group of really good friends over there and we had never lost touch. But I was always networking too, looking out for the newest training methods, systems, the latest strength and conditioning ways. I brought a lot of it home to the development squads in Cavan and our lads who experienced success at minor and under 21 success this season were the first graduates, using those methods.

"I'm not at all saying that what was picked up in Australia was responsible for the breakthrough but it was definitely a contributing factor."

Though the job in GAA HQ was pleasing and his initiatives were receiving a warm response, a development at the other side of the world caught his eye.

The AFL revealed a desire for a second AFL side in Sydney and there was plenty of interest in the franchise -- including a preliminary enquiry from Ireland for an outfit called the Sydney Celts. Walsh monitored the situation all the way through, realising the expansion of the game in the New South Wales area was going to be fast-tracked. Opportunity knocked and when the Greater Western Sydney Giants was granted the 18th AFL licence, he made sure to be in the mix.

"I saw them putting a great team together and expressed my interest in joining the support staff," he adds. "I made contact, but I had visited the area the previous December to look at coaching methods so they knew me. I sent over a CV but heard nothing. For six weeks I thought no more of it."

They did make contact however and on Tuesday he starts the latest chapter of his life as the GWS Giants' high performance coach.

The process of securing the gig was lengthy and at times complex. It involved a meeting in London and two Skype interviews but he has officially joined Kevin Sheedy's management team and flew out to join them last Thursday morning at 7.0am. It's an exciting time; after two seasons playing in development competitions, the club will begin their AFL odyssey next year.

It's safe to say that Giants' manager Sheedy didn't capture the Irish public's affection whilst in charge of the Australian international rules side a few years back but he is nonetheless a highly-respected manager and it says much of Walsh's pedigree that Sheedy has accepted an Irish coach in such a highly competitive domestic environment.

The Cavan man will link up with a host of renowned sports scientists including Graeme Allan and Alan McConnell in a set-up that features coaches with experience of working with Olympic athletes.

Walsh won't feel one bit out of place, though. After returning to Ireland he re-launched his studies at Queen's University and the 28-year-old has spent a good deal of the past 10 years enhancing his fitness qualifications, working with Cathal O'Grady at whitecollarboxing.ie and graduating from the Setanta fitness programme.

Now his job is to help devise and oversee a conditioning programme for a team with an average age of 19. The Giants will play in a purpose-built Aus$27.5 million facility that boasts two first-class AFL/Cricket Ovals with the main arena having a capacity for 10,000 spectators. It's another massive challenge in the career of Walsh, but he's not daunted.

"I'll have a good chance to implement structures because most of the guys are so young and they will listen and in many ways I have a blank canvas," he reckons. "The other coaches and I will be liaising all the time so it's something I just couldn't turn down. There are no down sides other than the fact that I'll have to retire, I suppose. God, that's really only dawning on me now," he adds wryly. "When I see Cavan play Donegal in the Ulster preliminary or see Cavan Gaels play the local championship, it will hit me and I'll probably get a wee bit misty-eyed. I have a house at home too and family and friends, so it wasn't simple to leave but I have to do this.

"I would have hoped to have progressed further in Croke Park but there are administrators there ahead of me and it might have been a lengthy process. Both Páraic Duffy and Christy Cooney supported me on this move and said it was a challenge that had to be accepted. They are right -- you have to keep progressing and educating yourself."

Walsh is typically pragmatic when talk turns to the ongoing issue of Irish players being poached by AFL clubs for pretty average rookie contracts. He states there will be no question of him or his club scouting young footballers here -- that's not what he has signed up for.

"The way things are structured in the AFL, the bottom club, which is what we are starting off, have the top picks so there are 10 young Aussie rookies that we can go for. So why would we want to be looking outside the country when the oval ball is so natural to these youngsters?

"I'm not saying the club will never go looking for Irish players but it's not a priority and it's not the reason I have been taken on board. We're getting a top-10 draft at the moment and if we can get the pick of Aussie 18-year-olds then we have no reason to look elsewhere."

A contributing factor in his decision to take off was a seemingly never-ending injury catalogue. It dogged his hopes of making it with Melbourne, he endured a few further setbacks around 2007 with Cavan, suffered from ankle ligaments last year and found himself frequently on the physio table again in 2011. Despite those familiar ailments, he kept going, full of resilience and ambition, but it was hugely frustrating time all the same.

"Ah, it was," he sighs. "I was out for most of the season despite training and recuperating well. It would sap the life out of you."

Playing with the likes of Cavan, who are heavily dependent on the emerging young blood to make an impression at senior, he felt the chances of a breakthrough were always pitted against the Breffni men.

"The bottom line is that the Cavan players are thoroughly professional and we are training four or five nights a week with a game at the weekend but yet there is no getting past the likes of Dublin, Tyrone or Kerry and it's very frustrating. I would say that 90 per cent of what we do replicates a professional set-

up. Personally speaking, commuting to and from Dublin isn't as demanding as what it was years back but it still had to be done.

"Everything adds up and Gaelic football in general has become way more defensive too. I know there was a lot of criticism of the championship this year and maybe having the injuries this year left me a bit flat. A change is good now."

He went back to Cavan Gaels last weekend to say his goodbyes and as usual JJ O'Reilly was out coaching the underage section. "That's what I'll miss most," he says. "The likes of JJ got me started all those years ago. His hard work, the other volunteers, the spirit -- all that makes the GAA."

His father Tom, a former Wexford hurler and 1968 All-Ireland minor winner, is another massive influence on his career but Walsh won't be long gelling with his new family -- the Giants hang out together in a complex outside Sydney where there are apartments, gyms, supermarkets and a range of other facilities. He'll merely look on and take everything in for the first few weeks before he starts putting his stamp on proceedings. The new faces, surroundings and environment won't faze him either -- he was through it all as a 17-year-old.

Maybe someday he'll return to the GAA armed with new sheaves of knowledge and experience but on Tuesday, however, a new page turns in his life. Nearly 10 years later, the kid with the promise of a glittering Aussie rules career gets a second shot at the dream.

You never know, this latest move could define him.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport