Kennelly to continue his seach for Irish talent
TADHG KENNELLY has admitted that the defection of Ciaran Kilkenny from the paid AFL ranks back to Gaelic football is a "setback" for the concept that made him a star in the Australian game, and consequently for the recruitment drive the Kerryman oversees in his role as an AFL ambassador.
However, Kennelly insisted that it won't impact in any way on already advanced plans to host another two- day camp in Dublin next month that will test more Gaelic football candidates.
Kilkenny and Donegal's All-Ireland medal winner Paddy McBrearty were among those who attended the Kennelly-hosted AFL camp in the National Basketball Arena in Dublin last February.
The Dublin dual player subsequently took up an international contract with Hawthorn, which he severed last week, while McBrearty turned down the offer of a trial last summer, ensuring that two of the most talented young forwards remain committed to Gaelic football.
But the channels for potential recruits in Ireland remain firmly open despite the significance of these decisions, according to Kennelly. This year's camp will take place in DCU on February 13-14, with those attending staying on campus overnight.
The former Sydney Swans star acknowledged that it was a "brave" decision by Kilkenny to cut short his AFL career after just six weeks, when he decided not to return after the winter break.
"It was brave in the first place to go out and brave to make a decision like it (to come back). Ciaran sensed it wasn't for him and he made a quick decision. He didn't go on against his will. Unless you are with these guys around the clock, you will never really know."
Kennelly hopes that Kilkenny's decision won't discourage AFL clubs from signing up to the concept of recruiting young Irish Gaelic footballers.
"In some ways, you expect it. It's a big thing to uproot and travel to the other side of the world," he said.
"Not everyone is equipped to do it. It takes a certain character and a certain mindset and the best footballers don't always have that. It takes something else.
"There was some negative press about Ciaran's decision initially over here – the fact that he was denying another international rookie a place and that Hawthorn can't sign anyone else now.
"But I respect his decision. I addressed all the players who came to us last February and told them that this was very likely to happen, that the chances of them actually making a career out of it in the long term aren't high, that it probably won't happen even if they come over.
"That's the honesty we like to think we bring to it. We set out the pitfalls. It's nothing to do with their talent, but because of what's involved in leaving home," he said.
Kennelly said the feedback from Hawthorn about Kilkenny during his six-week stint there was very positive: "I spoke to Luke Hodge, the Hawthorn captain, and he was convinced Ciaran would have played first-team AFL this season, his first. Not many have ever done that.
"They felt he had that potential and were obviously very impressed with what he did in his six weeks there. I have no doubt he would have made it.
"But it's a very difficult challenge to stay with it. Look at the statistics going back more than 25 years since Jimmy Stynes came over. How many have stayed beyond four or five years. Maybe five?"
Kennelly's efforts to secure international rookies extends much further beyond Ireland, with four coming through his mentoring programme for this season – Kilkenny, a former American college basketball player and two from New Zealand.
"There is so much potential there with former American footballers and basketballers who haven't made it and have the credentials to switch," he said.
"Ireland is only one area for recruitment and, thankfully, most of the AFL clubs interested come through the programme we have established. Ciaran came this way.
"The clubs know the risks involved and some are still not on board because of that."
Kennelly continues to dispute the perception that AFL recruitment is potentially damaging to Gaelic football.
"I don't think the statistics back that up at all. We're not in it to wreck Gaelic football or anything like it and I think most people recognise that," he added.
"Ciaran's decision is obviously a big boost to the GAA. He was the only one who came over this year through our programme.
"Most of the players who come over return as better Gaelic footballers. Look at the impact of Michael Quinn with Longford or Brendan Murphy with Carlow."
The number of Irish players with AFL clubs is at its lowest since the middle of the last decade, with just Tommy Walsh (Sydney Swans), Setanta O hAilpin (Great Western Sydney), Pearse Hanley and Niall McKeever (Brisbane Lions), Martin Clarke and Caolan Mooney (Collingwood) and Zac Tuohy (Carlton) currently attached.
Kennelly says this figure backs up his view of how hard it is to succeed, emotionally as much as anything else.