Monday 22 January 2018

The Irish exodus to the AFL - To be feared or to be forgotten?

From L-R: Tyrone and Essendon defender Conor McKenna, Cork and Carlton defender Ciaran Sheehan and Kerry and Geelong's Mark O'Connor
From L-R: Tyrone and Essendon defender Conor McKenna, Cork and Carlton defender Ciaran Sheehan and Kerry and Geelong's Mark O'Connor

Jack O'Toole

Kerry people have a unique way of dealing with issues in their society. If a player fails a drug test, you keep it quiet until 13 months later when it's unveiled in a national Sunday newspaper.

If a promising young football player makes his professional debut in a sport he just picked up, you nail his mentor, and the person who provided him with that opportunity in the first place.

And if the entire planet is faced with climate change and global warming, you deny it, and hold up the country being 'roasted out of it' in the 12th century to illustrate that not only is climate change a myth, but that God and God alone is in charge of the weather.

But with that said, these are generalisations, and the problem with generalisations are that they don't always accurately represent the people in which they describe, as many Kerry people reading this will know all too well.

But as a microcosm of the Kingdom, if we cross-examine Tomás Ó Sé's attitude towards the Australian Football League poaching GAA players, and Danny Healy Rae's dismissal of climate change, there's some interesting parallells.

Firstly, Ó Sé has an apocalyptic view towards a problem that isn't actually that severe, especially when you study the history of player migration from the GAA to the AFL, while Healy Rae is dismissive of a problem that could actually be apocalyptic. Only one of those issues is a real problem, two if you really think about it.

The Wolf is at the door

"When Aussie Rules wasn’t at my doorstep, I cared little enough about it," Ó Sé wrote in his divisive column in the Irish Independent last month.

"But it’s there now and what I see happening is just plain wrong. Worse, as things stand, we have zero protection against Australian clubs coming over here and cherry-picking our best young players."

Aussie Rules, or AFL International Talent Co-ordinator Tadhg Kennelly in this instance, is unequivocally the wolf, while the great county of Kerry is well and truly Ó Sé's doorstep, but the matter of protection is dependent on what there is to lose.

To keep with the Kerry theme in this article, in April Kerry sheep farmer Mikey Joe O'Shea went on RTÉ's Six One News to try and raise awareness for a potential sheep thief in the Mount Brandon area.

The report will mostly be remembered for the unbelievable thickness of O'Shea's west Kerry accent, but in the midst of his recollection, O'Shea's words held some truth, with the Mount Brandon farmer claiming that he had accounted for both deaths and strays when calculating the amount of sheep missing from his flock of 60 Scotch sheep.

Tomas Ó Sé did something similar in his column, noting that Kennelly, Jim Stynes, Sean Wight and Zach Tuohy were the exceptions, the strays if you will, to the legions of Irish players that failed to make the grade in Australia's AFL.

O'Shea's loss of Scotch sheep is of a much graver concern to his farm than losing football players is to the GAA's, because in all likelihood, O'Shea won't get his sheep back, the GAA will.

Of the 63 Irish players that have gone to Australia in the hope of carving out a professional career there, only 20 players have actually played a game in the AFL. Of that group of 20, only nine players have actually played over 20 games, in a calendar year where teams play a minimum of 22 games in a season.

Tommy Walsh and Lewis Jetta, right, Sydney Swans after the game. AFL Round 8, Sydney Swans v Melbourne Demons, SCG, Sydney. Picture credit: Craig Golding / SPORTSFILE
Tommy Walsh and Lewis Jetta, right, Sydney Swans after the game. AFL Round 8, Sydney Swans v Melbourne Demons, SCG, Sydney. Picture credit: Craig Golding / SPORTSFILE

In the 33 years since Paul Earley's AFL debut with the Melbourne Demons in 1984, there have been just nine players to play the amount of games that would equate to an entire season.

Nine players out of 63 is one out of every seven players, or collateral damage, not an issue for protection. 45 sheep from 60 is three out of every four, a problem that definitely requires protection and an issue that is much bigger than just collateral damage.

Players aren't sheep, even if Ó Sé likes to think they are flocking to Australia as such, but that's not the issue here, the problem has to do with numbers.

Numbers like 54, which represents the amount of Irish players that have played 20 games or less in the AFL.

Of those 54 players, six - Darragh Joyce, Ray Connellan, Conor Nash, Colin O'Riordan, Conor Glass and Cian Hanley - are still awaiting their AFL debuts. Three players - Mark O'Connor, Conor McKenna and Ciarán Byrne - are on current AFL first team squads, while the other 45 players disappeared off the AFL's radar.

Some like Aisake Ó hAilpín, returned to Ireland and resumed their playing career the GAA after their failed spell in the AFL, before ultimately returning to Australia where they remain today.

Others like Kildare's Paddy Brophy returned to intercounty football to play with their home county, while the likes of Ciarán Kilkenny left Hawthorn, without playing a single game, only to return to Dublin to win three All-Ireland titles.

But what about David Clifford? The Kerry underage star who is the next big prospect linked with a move to the AFL - is he going to be one of only three players in the last six years to amass more than 10 games in the AFL? Or be just the 10th Irish player in the history of the league to play more than 20 first grade games?

Or will he go like Kilkenny did and stay for a few months before returning to win multiple All-Ireland's?

Mikey Joe O'Shea isn't going on national television because he lost 15 out of 60 sheep, he's on RTE because he claims he lost 45.

Ó Sé is calling for protection from the GAA when only three players from Kerry in the last 16 years have actually played a game in the AFL, with only one of those players, Tadhg Kennelly, playing more than 10 games, the same player Ó Sé climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand with in 2009 to win his fifth All-Ireland title.

Most of us struggled to understand a single word of what Mikey Joe O'Shea was trying to say when recounting the loss of his sheep, but we understood his logic. We all know exactly what Ó Sé is saying but where is the logic? And Mikey Joe O'Shea's sheep for that matter too.

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