Cribbin going it alone in the AFL

Lilywhite's solo expedition shows drop in exports Down Under

Catherine Murphy

KILDARE'S Paul Cribbin is the only Irish player to be added to the books of an Australian Rules club for season 2011 despite fears that the oval ball's code expansion to two extra teams would see a barrage of Irish talent emigrate to pursue a professional football career.

A talented Lilywhite minor of the last two summers, Cribbin, is Collingwood's latest Irish project having also signed Down's Caolan Mooney for season 2012. Cribbin's solitary inclusion is a big drop on previous years, with five Irish rookies added to AFL club lists for season 2010.

Out of the 2010 batch of players signed, Down's Jamie O'Reilly (Richmond Tigers), Antrim's Niall McKeever (Brisbane Lions), Laois' Zach Tuohy (Carlton), Kerry's Tommy Walsh (St Kilda) and Derry's Chris McKaigue (Sydney Swans), only O'Reilly managed to make his senior debut.

The GPA's decision to involve themselves, in a partnership with the AFL Players' Association, in aiding players who wish to travel to Australia and also support those who return to Ireland having failed to make it in the professional sport was met by criticism from some quarters, who believed the 'transition' programme would encourage players to leave the GAA's amateur ranks.

"We've always stated that we never believed that a flood of players to Australia would materialise," GPA spokesperson Seán Potts told the Evening Herald.

"It's a huge decision for any player to take the plunge.

"It's a much bigger decision than going over to England to play soccer.

"If you look at it in the context of the Mickey Harte argument, we really don't think that the lure over there is huge. We've always felt that there's competition much closer to home and particularly from rugby.

"The sport has grown so much so we would see rugby as the main competition for the hearts and minds of players. A lot of energy has been wasted over the years talking about the lure of Australia."

While all of the 2010 signings remain committed to their AFL clubs for the coming season, last year's batch of Irish recruits wasn't a fruitful one for the AFL.

Out of the four signed, Michael Quinn, Kyle Coney, Conor Meredith and Brian Donnelly, only one is still aligned with his club, Quinn.

Conor Meredith (delisted by North Melbourne this year), Brian Donnelly (returned to Ireland this year following injury) and Kyle Coney all returned to Ireland without ever making the breakthrough to senior ranks.

"It was all a lot of hype really," added Potts.

"If you look at the AFL's processes of recruiting foreign players, they're not just looking at Ireland.

"They've recruited from the US, from Canada. The figures show that most of them return. We've always been consistent about that.

"In making our case for formal recognition we always highlighted that the threat was from far closer to home and from professional soccer and rugby ... look at all the rugby players playing for Ireland that come from hurling strongholds like Tipperary and Limerick and it will happen more and more in Dublin."

AFL spokesperson Patrick Keane concurs with the view that much of the speculation over the years regarding code switches have been blown out of proportion. He said: "These things (the recruitment of players) tend to happen in waves.

"There was a period of a few years when we had four or five Irish players come over then it quietened down for a while. Then we got another group over the last few years and now it seems to have flattened.

"There's always been a lot more coverage and a lot more made of the move from Ireland to Australia than actually existed.

"The only player that's ever stayed is Jim Stynes. Tadhg Kennelly has spent the majority of his time here but he still went home and won an All-Ireland medal during the time he's been here."

It's not just the season 2009 Irish statistics that support that theory.

Of the four players signed for season 2008, Mayo's Pearce Hanley (Brisbane ), Carlow's Brendan Murphy (Sydney ), Cork's Michael Shields (Carlton), and Armagh's Kevin Dyas (Collingwood), only Hanley still calls Australia home.