Wednesday 23 May 2018

Irish recruits cover all bases as Aussies widen talent search

With Ciarán Kilkenny the latest player tempted into trying his luck Down Under, Marie Crowe looks at the recruitment process

When Ciarán Kilkenny was 14 his dad gave him an Australian Rules ball. He'd seen the game on TV and mentioned that he'd like to try it out. He kicked around a bit, got used to the ball but continued to focus on hurling and football.

Although he loved Gaelic games, a dream of playing Australian Rules football was forming.

"I thought that maybe some day I'd like to play that game," says Kilkenny. "I'd heard stories about scouts turning up to Hogan Cup and minor games to pick people for trials so that was in my head."

A year and a half ago, when he was playing minor football for Dublin, he was invited to try out for Carlton Football Club. They were holding trials at the University of Limerick. It didn't take long for Kilkenny to catch the eye and within days the recruiters called to see his parents. They were interested, but Kilkenny was heading into his Leaving Cert year so the dream was put on hold.

In the meantime, Tadhg Kennelly and the AFL held a trial for international players. They went to New Zealand, America, China, Papua New Guinea, London and Ireland looking for new players for their game.

"The talent is drying up in Australia," explains Kennelly. "There are two new clubs after coming into

the competition and they need players. My job is to try and find them for AFL clubs. They will tell us what type of players they're after and we'll go look internationally. For example, we went to America looking for kids who are 6' 9" or 10" because there is a shortage of them specifically."

In general, the prototype they are looking for is well over six feet tall. The Irish are the easiest nationality to make the transition because of Gaelic football's similarity to Australian Rules football. If players have good endurance combined with explosiveness, can catch, kick and read the play then they have a lot of the bases covered.

"It makes it easier when a kid from Ireland comes out, generally you just need to work on their kicking technique. We have tall Americans who can run, jump and are very explosive but they are very different to footballers because they've been playing basketball all their lives."

Last February, Kennelly ran his Irish camp, when a series of intensive tests were done on the young footballers in attendance. Their endurance, speed agility and jumping ability was scrutinised along with their kicking and awareness. Several AFL club representatives were present to see what Ireland had to offer. Three players stood out -- Kilkenny, Derry's Emmett Bradley and Kildare's Seán Hurley.

Carlton and Hawthorn wanted to sign Kilkenny immediately so no further testing was required, while Bradley and Hurley were invited to Australia to take part in the AFL draft combine which was held earlier this month.

The combine is a combination of tests for aspiring young footballers. They are put through their paces both mentally and physically, all under the watchful eyes of the 18 AFL clubs who are looking for talent. Each potential draftee goes through a range of physical, medical, psychological, psychomotor and skills tests to compare the best against the best from around Australia.

Ultimately, the majority of the 2012 AFL draftees emerge from this talent pool. Ten international kids selected from Kennelly's six trials made the cut for the combine.

Bradley and Hurley pitted themselves against almost 100 other draftees and excelled. Bradley finished fifth in the Agility Test with a time of 8.31 and also finished joint ninth in the Beep Test with a 14.2, while Hurley finished sixth in the 3km time trial, clocking 10.17.

They were each interviewed by several clubs and will know by the start of November if they've been picked up. "There was a lot of interest in the Irish lads," confirms Kennelly. "The biggest hurdle for players from Ireland is the distance from family and friends. I don't think it's the game itself, they are generally good at getting it right, it's the cultural difference and being so far away. We worked hard on getting welfare right for international footballers.

"We've 28 international footballers in the AFL, we have a Canadian rugby player who scored a try against New Zealand in the last World Cup. Four years ago, he'd never picked up an Australian Rules ball and a few weeks ago he won a Premiership medal with the Swans. Those stories help.

"People think we are trying to drain the talent in Ireland but we are not. What we are trying to do is make sure that recruiting is done right and we are doing it all over the world. We are not making any money from these players -- I'm not getting a cut -- we are trying to stop that; instead we have the best interest of the player in mind."

While Bradley and Hurley were trying their luck at the combine, Kilkenny was making up his mind about his future. He'd spent the summer playing football for Dublin and thinking about what to do. His parents encouraged him not to have any regrets so he decided to give the AFL a chance. He went over to check out the Hawthorn club in Melbourne and liked them.

They recently contested the Premiership final, which they lost to the Sydney Swans, but have high hopes for the future. Kilkenny did a few endurance, sprinting and kicking tests while there but it was nothing compared to the combine. Hawthorn wanted him and after seeing the lifestyle that professional athletes enjoy he signed up as rookie with the club.

He leaves in mid-November but will be back at Christmas. The next month will be spent training hard to prepare for pre-season and playing as much GAA as he can. His club Castleknock won the Dublin junior championship last week and today play Ballinabranna in Carlow in the first round of the Leinster championship.

Will he come back and some day win an All-Ireland with Dublin? He's already made one dream come true so why not.

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