Saturday 18 January 2020

Comment: Mark O'Connor's move to Australia highlights a serious problem for the GAA

Mark O'Connor, Kerry. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Mark O'Connor, Kerry. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Mark O'Connor's decision to sign for Geelong on a two-year international rookie contract brings to 50 the number of Irish players that have signed professional terms with an AFL club.

O'Connor, one of Kerry's brightest prospects having won All-Ireland minor medals in 2014 and 2015 (when he captained the team), was being pursued by at least three clubs and took part in trials earlier this month when he made a deep impression.

Westmeath’s Ray Connellan. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Westmeath’s Ray Connellan. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

He was part of the Kerry senior squad for this year's championship and would have been expected to break on to the team next year had he opted to stay.

His departure is a blow to Kerry, even allowing for the depth of talent they have and raises concerns once again that AFL clubs are picking off some of the best Irish talent.

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Westmeath brothers John, left, and Ray Connellan after their win against Meath (Photo: Sportsfile)

O'Connor's move brings to four the number of Irish confirmed who are taking on contracts with AFL clubs in the coming weeks, with Westmeath's Ray Connellan (above) and Kilkenny hurler Darragh Joyce, brother of senior defender Kieran, heading to St Kilda, and Conor Glass bound for Hawthorn. That figure could rise in the coming weeks.

O'Connor said he choose Geelong because it was quite "like Dingle."

"I was very comfortable there. I was really taken with Geelong. When I went in there everyone was very friendly, and I felt at home there," he told Raidio na Gaeltachta's An Shaol ó Dheas yesterday.

O'Connor will bring to 13 the number of Irish players in the AFL though a doubt remains as to whether Ciarán Sheehan will continue his career.

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Mayo brothers Pearse and Cian Hanley remain with Brisbane, Colin O'Riordan has a year done with Sydney Swans, Louth's Ciarán Byrne is recovering from injury at Carlton, Kildare's Paddy Brophy is extending his time with West Coast Eagles, Zac Tuohy is on the verge of a big move from Carlton, Kerry's Padraig Lucey, more known as a basketballer, is on the books of Geelong, Tyrone's Conor McKenna is with Essendon.

Tadhg Kennelly says this is as good an Australian side that has stepped on Irish soil
Tadhg Kennelly

O'Connor is the fifth Kerry-based player to sign for an AFL club following on from Scottish-born Sean Wight, Tadhg Kennelly, Tommy Walsh and Lucey.

Cork and Dublin still have the most AFL-contracted players with six each over the 33 years that the 'Irish experiment' as it was originally known, has been running now. The club that has signed most Irish players is Melbourne, the pioneers of the experiment.

They took on Paul Earley and Wight in the early 1980s and followed up with Jim Stynes and James Fahy in 1984.

At the beginning of the 1990s there was an acceleration in recruitment and Kildare's Niall Buckley, Roscommon's Tommy Grehan, Derry's Anthony Tohill and Cork's Colin Corkery all signed on for Melbourne but only Brian Stynes made any real headway.

Melbourne recruited Cavan's Nicholas Walsh, now a coach with Great Western Sydney having worked with Cavan GAA and the GAA, in 2001 but that was their last involvement with Irish players.

Brisbane and Carlton have always been receptive to Gaelic footballers with Zac Tuohy and Pearse Hanley among the most successful to make the crossover. Tuohy is a draft target of Geelong. Both clubs have recruited six Irish players.

Sydney have also been busy with five, Kennelly being the most recognised.

Collingwood and St Kilda have both had four each on their books while three clubs, newcomers Gold Coast and Great Western Sydney and North Melbourne have yet to have an Irish signature though Setanta ó hAilpín did switch to GWS after his time with Carlton ended.

Pearse Hanley, Ireland, kicks 3 points despite the best efforts of Grant Birchall, Australia
Pearse Hanley in action for Ireland

The majority of AFL Irish have returned within two to three years, the notable exceptions have been the late Jim Stynes, Brownlow medal winner in 1991, Sean Wight, also deceased, Tadhg Kennelly, Premiership winner in 2005 and Tuohy, Pearse Hanley, Martin Clarke, ó hAilpín and Colm Begley who all enjoyed a decent run of games.

Some, like Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny in 2012 and Tyrone's Kyle Coney in 2008 lasted just a few weeks before deciding it wasn't for them while Westmeath's John Heslin, Brendan Quigley of Laois and Kildare's Daniel Flynn also cut short their time involved.

O'Connor could still yet return to make an impact with Kerry but in the short term he's a huge loss to Jack O'Connor's U-21 team.

"It will be a different challenge. I've been playing football since I was six or seven. It's attractive to stay here too (to play football for Kerry), that's why the decision was so hard. I want a different experience, and maybe a little bit of travelling, I suppose I was looking for something different," he said.

The Kerry management team wished him all the best, and stressed that they were very happy for him on a personal level, he said.

"They were very happy to hear about it on a personal level, but with their Kerry caps on they weren't as happy.

"I thanked them for all their help. It was a bit mixed I suppose. They were very happy for me personally, but as managers and players they weren't as happy .They (Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Jack O'Connor) didn't put any pressure on me to stay, they said it was my own decision."

David Clifford, star of this year's minor team, is understood to have already turned down offers from AFL interests.

Through Kennelly, the AFL's international talent co-ordinator, an international combine is held in Ireland each year inviting most of the country's top young talent in for testing.

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