The affiliation between Gaelic football in Ireland and the AFL has been long-running, and so it has extended to the AFLW too.
With more Irish players than ever in the competition, the Sydney Swans will celebrate the Irish community when they face the West Coast Eagles this weekend.
Three promising Irish cross-coders were signed at the same time ahead of the current season, Paris McCarthy, Jennifer Higgins, and Julie O’Sullivan, with Tanya Kennedy following soon after.
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The Irish contingent extends beyond the playing group, though.
Jenny Higgins’s husband, Cathal Shine is the Swans AFLW property co-ordinator who is a former Gaelic footballer from Roscommon. He came over to Sydney with Jenny and wanted to get involved.
Dubliner Stephen Kelly is the head strength and conditioning coach in the AFLW program, who had previously worked as the head of physical development at the QBE Sydney Swans Academy since 2012.
Irish Swans AFLW players Paris McCarthy, Jennifer Higgins, Tanya Kennedy and Julie O’Sullivan ahead of their first match at Henson Park. Credit: Phil Hillyard/Supplied
Also hailing from Dublin is Kira Bryan, a physio currently interning with the side as well.
With all the Irish accents already floating about the Swans, it’s no surprise that former Sydney Swans defender Colin O’Riordan was keen to be involved, too.
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O’Riordan is assisting the AFLW program in a coaching role, after his retirement from playing with the club at the end of the 2022 season due to a hip injury, after 34 games.
When asked what the appeal is to either transition from Gaelic football or juggle Aussie Rules alongside it, O’Riordan says there’s one obvious answer.
“The biggest thing, obviously, is Gaelic football back home is amateur, and the opportunities just aren’t there,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s an amateur sport and coming over here, I guess all you have to do is walk in the doors of any club in the league, and you see the difference in facilities.
“I’m sure the girls see an opportunity in it – this is a chance where I can come and really flourish, I get treated like a full-time athlete. They’re looked after much better, and they have a chance to grow.”
The Tipperary All-Star joined the Swans in 2018 after following a well-trodden path by many male Gaelic footballers who impressed scouts during the footy season in Ireland, so the transition to Australian Football is something he knows well.
“It can be hard at home being an amateur, the reality is you might finish college, or you might finish work at four o’clock and jump on a train or jump in the car and drive for two hours, then train for 2.5 hours then you’re back in the car, and you mightn’t get home until midnight … And that’s what Gaelic games is at home,” he said.
“But you do it because you love it and for the passion – whereas here, I think you really understand that the professional lifestyle and what it’s like and that’s probably the biggest attraction for any Irish woman coming over to play the game.
“Even though it (Gaelic football) might not be professional, I think what the Irish girls and what I’ve seen first hand is they bring a real professional level to what they do because they prepare as well as they can because you’re working on the side, and you have no choice.
“You bring a professional mentality to it and just because they’re not paid as professionals back home, they act professionally, their diet, their conditioning is up to a level that they can come across to AFLW and perform at a level that matches with the Aussie girls.”
Colin O’Riordan, a former Sydney player, is now an assistant coach for the AFLW side. Credit: Ben Cuevas (Swans media)/Supplied
An announcement this week of the first joint collective bargaining agreement covering female and male players saw dramatic changes to the AFLW for years ahead.
It includes pay increases and the potential for 12-month contracts, which presumably may mean some Irish players won’t be able to go home to play Gaelic football in the off-season.
“I’m hesitant to say this, but I think it’s nearly got to the point where gone are the days when you can go home and play for your county at home and also come out here and play,” O’Riordan says.
“The new CBA seems like it’s going to make it even more professional, where it’s just not going to be possible.”
The increased number of Irish players joining the AFLW competition is, O’Riordan says, “a testament to the kind of athletes that the AFLW are attracting”.
“The league is attracting athletes who are up there with some of the best in the world, really athletic people,” he said.
“If you’re an athletic person, and can do a lot of fundamental skills, there’s a correlation between different areas.
“That’s shown with Sarah (Rowe, Collingwood) playing Gaelic and then also playing soccer, and you have Tanya Kennedy, who represented Ireland in under-18 soccer back home before she came over to Australia.”
As for his return to the red and white after a short hiatus – O’Riordan said he had hoped it wasn’t forever.
“My love for the club is just so much that when I finished up last year, I just wasn’t ready to step away, and I wanted to give back a bit to the club in anyway I could,” the 27-year-old said.
“When they approached me and asked me to help out with the women’s team, I said I love the place, and I’d love to give back.”
The Swans will face the West Coast Eagles at Henson Park, Sydney at 1.05pm on Sunday.
The Eagles will be searching for their first win of the season, while Sydney will be hoping for a second.
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