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Irish flood set to sweep AFL

  • Wednesday, October 24 2007 @ 06:45 pm ACST
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The trickle of Irish players into the Australian Football League is set to become a flood in 2008. Carlton may be about to take the recruiting experiment to a new level, and what had been a curiosity could now become a major phenomenon, set to shape the on-field destinies of some clubs and possibly even bring on the possibility of true international Australian Football competition for Australia.

There are currently five Irishmen on AFL lists:

Tadhg Kennelly - Sydney
Setanta O'hAilpin - Carlton
Aisake O'hAilpin - Carlton
Colm Begley - Brisbane
Martin Clarke - Collingwood

A further three have previously been reported as heading Down Under in the pre-season and could be rookie listed shortly:

Pierce Handley - Brisbane
Brendan Murphy - Sydney
Kevin Dyas - Collingwood

Now Carlton have announced that they will be joined by All-Ireland finalist Michael Shields, 20, for a trial run in November. This could bring the total of international recruits trying their luck to nine in 2008.

Further, there is a report that four more players, aged 16 and 17, have signed exclusive contracts which mean that if the young men choose to try their hand in the AFL, it will be with the Blues. In the meantime the club would pay a small fee and work with them in developing their skills, while they remain in Galway, Cork, Laois and Armagh respectively.

However Carlton's football operations manager Steven Icke, currently in Ireland, stated on the club's website "I am meeting with some other players but I'm not going to state who they are", but that in relation to contracts being signed "That's all wrong (regarding payments). No payments have been made. I'm here to talk to some people but there are no offers being made at this stage". So perhaps no signings have been made, but they may be imminent.

This is a major shift in the search for Irish talent, and does not fall within the AFL's international scholarship program so has no restrictions. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou has agreed that there is nothing outside of AFL rules in what Carlton were reported to have done. Several times this year we've stated on WFN that although we do not enjoy the pillaging of GAA clubs in terms of its potential impact on sport in Ireland, the reality is that now the rush is on AFL club recruiters need to be widening their nets. The AFL competition is kept in fairly close balance by the National Draft system, but the Irish experiment is a way to circumvent such restrictions. Begley showed how quickly a player can be developed, and Clarke has shown signs of being a future star with just months in the game. If an AFL club can recruit the equivalent of one or two first round draft picks, in the tight premiership race that would easily make the difference between a flag and a struggle to make the finals. Indeed Clarke was instrumental in helping Collingwood back into the contest in one of their finals - just a small sign of what may come.

Put another way, with a population of around 4 to 5 million people, with many of their elite athletes playing Gaelic football, if indeed the best players can transition to Aussie Rules, then ignoring Ireland is akin to ignoring Victoria at the draft. There are of course complications and many Irish players may not want to make the change, or may not be able to, and none have the advantage of growing up with the sport, but even if Ireland only yielded 10% of the players Victoria does, that would still have a profound effect on our sport.

A further tantalising prospect exists. In 2008 there will probably be nine Irishmen on AFL lists. With Carlton's possible move to lock in other youngsters, unless the AFL steps in to prevent it, other clubs will almost certainly do the same. By 2010 we could easily see 10 to 20 players from Ireland gracing Australia's AFL stadia. This trend could fade after the initial burst, but if not, 30 or 40 such players could be AFL regulars by the middle of the next decade. If that were the case, then forget painful attempts to resume State of Origin, forget the controversial hybrid of International Rules - bring on Australia versus Ireland in full Aussie Rules.

The report detailing Carlton's alleged recent raid is Carlton plunders Irish teen stocks, by Caroline Wilson, on Real Footy.