Saturday 24 February 2018

Ambassador's role for Kennelly

Tadhg Kennelly tells Colm Keys how a new AFL approach aims to rid ‘cowboyish’ tactics in recruitment of Irish players

Tadhg Kennelly instructs the 15 young footballers who were invited to yesterday's AFL recruitment camp
Tadhg Kennelly instructs the 15 young footballers who were invited to yesterday's AFL recruitment camp
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Tadhg Kennelly uses a number of different ways to get his point across, but the bottom line about what he's trying to say doesn't change. He wants people to know that he doesn't bite!

He knows the stigma attached to AFL recruitment camps. He knows the way they have come across in the past. The covert nature of previous operations, the secrecy attached and spiriting young players to Australia for two-week trials in the summer have created a certain image. The big bad wolf on the GAA's doorstep!

Kennelly is determined to change that image.

In December the AFL hired him as an international ambassador. As part of their drive for a more international feel to their game, they have already had camps similar to the one in Tallaght yesterday in Fiji and New Zealand, and in the next few months they will move on to London, continental Europe and the USA to explore recruitment opportunities.

On the books of AFL clubs there are now former rugby union and rugby league players from Australia, a former Canadian rugby player (Mike Pike) who played in the World Cup and an ex-American footballer. Kennelly thinks there's a Croatian basketballer who will attend the London camp that could fit the bill. And then of course there are the Gaelic footballers with skills aligned to what AFL clubs are looking for.

Kennelly appreciates the sensitivities there may be to camps of this nature within the GAA world.

In the National Basketball Arena yesterday, six players who competed in last year's All-Ireland minor football final were among 15 being put through tests that are standard for the draft process.

Ciaran Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey and Emmet O Conghaile from Dublin, and Tipperary trio Michael Quinlivan, Ian Fahey and Steven O'Brien participated in tests from vertical jumps to agility runs and straightforward 20-metre sprints that were timed using sensors over specific distances.

Donegal's rising star Paddy McBrearty was also there, as were promising duo Sean Hurley and Padraig Fogarty, the towering Conor Gough, who has recently declared for Down, Galway's Shane Walsh, Offaly's Eoin Carroll, Derry's Emmett Bradley, Wexford's Kieran Butler and an Australian-born potential recruit now living in Dublin with no underage affiliation, Muiris Bartley.

In their company were recruitment officials from eight AFL clubs. Former International Rules goalkeeper and AFL legend Stephen Silvagni flew in especially from Australia to represent the new Sydney franchise GWS, while two clubs used Dublin-based scouts to run the rule over the group that Kennelly had assembled with the support of the AFL's European head Ben McCormack.

The GAA, he insisted yesterday, have full knowledge of what they are doing.

"We told them three months ago when we first decided that this was going to happen. Pat Daly (GAA director of games) and Kevin Sheahan from the AFL have a fantastic relationship. They are in constant touch, not just about the recruitment of players but about the troubles the GAA are having in their game, the issues in the AFL and what's similar in both codes," said Kennelly.

The All-Ireland winner says camps like these are inevitable and it's not a matter of the GAA endorsing them because endorsement is something they can't do.

"People say (if the GAA are okay with it) why don't they have it in Croke Park? Well because they can't be seen to endorse it. It's another sport. But as far as everyone is concerned this is a better way of doing it for everyone that is interested in it, for AFL clubs, for the GAA, for the players that are involved," said Kennelly.

"The one concern was the player agents coming over and what's been happening. It has been run 'cowboyish'.

"The secrecy, no one knowing who is going, keeping it away from County Boards, no one knowing where it's on. Everyone knew that this is on today. It's out there."

He makes it known that he contacted his former International Rules colleague Kieran McGeeney to inform him that two players of his senior squad were being invited and was also in touch with NUI Maynooth Sigerson Cup team manager John Divilly because they have a game today.

Consequently Sean Hurley took no part in the more physical aspects of the testing.

This contact, insists Kennelly, is the better way of doing business.

And of course there is his knowledge. His priority is the players, not the clubs. In the past the power has been with the clubs in these situations.

"That's the big thing why I got involved in it. I didn't like the way it was being run. What it does this way is bring the power back to the kids. Hopefully in a few years there will be 18 clubs, but there will never be any more than 15 kids here. I don't want 10 kids going over and it's not going to happen," he said.

"I'm going to commit to the players that I am a port of call to them. If Carlton (one of the eight clubs involved) do something on the side on their own like that (Limerick camp in October) I want to be able to say to the player 'why not ring me, don't do it, Collingwood or someone else want to see you as well.'

"That's the idea of bringing the power back to Ireland, back to the players, back to the families."

He admits that the AFL were spooked by some of the recruitment that has gone on before.

"It's not nice because they pride themselves on being a professional organisation, things that happened in the past. They've got a reputation, they've got a brand image that they want to uphold as well.

"The last thing they want is basically cowboy regimes coming on and damaging the brand. Australians were getting damaged by it. It's a brand thing and it did scare the AFL.

"I'll know there will be criticism of what we do but something needs to be done. I think we will work with the GAA in the future."

If two clubs invite players out for trials later this year Kennelly will deem the camp a success. He points to the statistics relating to Irish-born players in the AFL.

After so many fears about a mass exodus, there are just eight Irish players over there. Only four have remained for any longer than four years.

"There will never be an exodus. Just one (Down's Caolan Mooney) signed up for the 2012 season with Collingwood. Two every year is as much as I would ever expect," said Kennelly.

Irish Independent

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