Irish news: Australian footy comp growing in Ireland

by Peter Lenaghan

Wednesday 8 July 2009

As increasing numbers of young Irishmen move across the world to try to make their fortune in the AFL, Peter Lenaghan looks at the Australian game’s continuing struggle to establish itself on the Emerald Isle.


It is quarter time in the Australian Rules Football League of Ireland match between the defending premiers, the Dublin Demons, and the Midland Tigers. Rain is falling on a grey summer’s afternoon in the Irish capital’s north-west suburbs. It is an important game and premiership points are on the line.


But the match is being played in a park, with plastic cones marking the boundary line and centre square. The goals are Gaelic football uprights, complete with cross bar, and temporary behind posts are erected on either side. Just 10 competitors are taking the field for each team.


As the league’s president, Ciaran O’Hara, is preparing to address his Midland troops at the first change, a red-headed man is putting on a bright yellow Tigers jumper and finishing his warm-up. O’Hara calls him towards the group and announces, “Lads, this is Damo,” and the late-comer shakes the hands of some of his new teammates. So it goes for a competition mid-way through its ninth season and still battling to find its feet.


O’Hara says he was drawn into the Australian game when he was researching a story for a TV show about a decade ago. He says he got in touch with Colm Cronin, who was trying to establish an Aussie Rules club in Ireland. “He said, ‘Well, there’s no story here, but will you give me a hand setting the team up?’ Ten years on, more or less, I’m still going and Colm’s off working on a boat in Caribbean.”


The league was formed in 2000. Teams from Dublin, Belfast and smaller centres have taken part. Ireland has competed in and won the AFL’s International Cup. But much has changed since the league began, not least the dramatic economic collapse that has put, according to the most recent Irish government data, the country’s unemployment rate at almost 12%. The International Monetary Fund expects that figure to climb above 15% in the coming months as the Irish economy continues to shrink. The main opposition party’s leader, Enda Kenny, recently said Ireland had reclaimed its place as the economic “sick man of Europe”. It is a phenomenon affecting all facets of Irish life, and the Australian game is not immune.


This season there are five clubs playing in the ARFLI premiership; three from Dublin, the Leeside Lions from Cork, and the Mullingar-based Midland Tigers. The Dublin Demons and the Tigers have just managed to field teams today, but a match involving the Leeside Lions has been postponed because several of the team’s members have found jobs and can’t spare a Saturday afternoon off to play footy. Several members of the Midland team are out of work.


O’Hara says changes to immigration laws in recent years have also led to a drop in the number of Australians living and working in Ireland, cutting the supply of ready-made recruits.  In the past, Australian ex-pats could account for half the number of players at each Dublin club, while the regional teams would also feature a smattering from the Antipodes. Now clubs in the capital are lucky to have Aussies making up a third of their team. “We’ve always felt that you do need a certain quota of Australians to help develop the level of football,” O’Hara says. “We would’ve had definitely a higher standard of football here six or seven years ago than we do at the moment.”


The standard of play on show today varies greatly. The Irishmen taking the field have awkward, side-on kicking styles and struggle to trap the footy in the wet conditions, but the Gaelic football pedigree of some shines through when the chance arrives to run the ball forward. In a flash, a metre of space and three quick handballs are enough to send the game shooting towards the opposite end of the field. A handful of ex-pat Australians lining up for the Demons add a touch of class, consistently kicking the ball to a teammate’s advantage, and the Dublin side has a comfortable eight-goal win.


Damian Kruger is one of those living far from home but finding stability in the familiar code. He is from Quorn, near Port Augusta in South Australia. Kruger and his wife settled in Dublin two-and-a-half years ago. He is working as a fitter and turner, and plans to stay for a couple more years. He says joining the Demons, who train near his house in Dublin’s northern suburbs, has helped him to meet new friends in a club that is more relaxed than those at home. “These guys take it serious, don’t get me wrong on that there, but they can still have a bit of fun… Because they have a bit of trouble with numbers [of players] you’ve got a tiny little bit of leeway with relaxation and stuff like that.”


Ireland’s relationship with the Australian game remains delicate. Currently airing is a new television documentary – called ‘The Oz Factor’ – looking at the player manager, Ricky Nixon, and his attempt to recruit some of the brightest young Gaelic football talent to the AFL. A much-publicised training camp held in August last year generated great concern in the Gaelic games community. O’Hara says the defection of players from Gaelic football to the AFL is a double-edged sword for his league. “In certain places there’s now a renewed interest in Australian Rules football,” he says, “because someone from their locality is playing. On the other level, there are traditionalists in the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] who might be offended by what’s happening, in terms of this player drain, and it means that they can react negatively to us when we arrive into their community trying to establish a football team, or maybe trying to use their facilities.” It is important for the ARFLI to keep the politically and socially powerful GAA on side. The league often relies on GAA clubs for playing fields and changing rooms. Many of the ARFLI’s players are also members of GAA clubs and, where possible, are competing in both codes.


O’Hara says that after almost a decade, he believes Aussie Rules is yet to establish itself in Ireland. The three Dublin clubs are strong, but O’Hara says life is tough for the teams in smaller areas, especially the Leeside Lions, who have to regularly make the long trip from Cork to Dublin for matches. He says his club, Midland, is catering for footballers across central and western Ireland, providing an opportunity for those interested in the game the opportunity to play regularly. And O’Hara remains positive about the game’s prospects. This year’s International Rules is being viewed as a chance to entice new players, the AFL is providing funding for an Auskick program in Ireland, and he says Collingwood is also helping teams with equipment and the development of coaches.


“I’ve never encountered a game where you have so much mateship,” O’Hara says, “where you’re encouraged to look out for your teammates, never to be negative towards your teammates. There’s a great culture in Australian football and I think even we carry that into our own Gaelic football afterwards… The reality is that most of the guys running the clubs are Irish and as long as the Irish guys are enthusiastic about promoting Australian football then I believe this league can grow because if we can like it, then surely others can like it, and if they can like it then it will expand.”


  1. Cousin Chris says

    Enjoying the articles Peter. Your mother told me all about them at the big cousins’ party on the weekend. Of course, we are all purring in G-Town after the one point demolition of the Hawkes after the siren. Revenge is sweet but the finals loom. Cats not out of the woods yet.

  2. What a load of crap. Everbody knows the league in Ireland is a discrace. The problem is it is run by Irish and not Australians. All anybody has to do is turn up and see how far they are behind the rest of the World. It is not even the money, but the lack of direction by the people in charge. For a start, get rid of O’hara.

  3. This comment by “Pete” is a very unfair and cowardly remark. Its true to acknowledge that the league is struggling -no arguments there. But sitting back pointing fingers and playing the blame game is simply NOT ON. For a start the league was ALWAYS going to play second fiddle to Gealic Games in Ireland -FACT. Irish boys are never going to abandon playing GAA for their locality, espically as the playing season of both codes coincide. The fact of the matter is there is no new generation to replace the previous one. The Irish players that played in the past have moved on (retirement, marrige, work and family commitments) and the huge impact of Aussie ex-pats community has’nt been replaced. Also without a tiny bit of financial backing and media coverage the league suffers. Its tough on players in places as far away as Cork to make a 600KM round trip and play a game in the one day. This senario could be repeated by all clubs up to 5 or 6 times in the one season! So for the so called “Pete” to make these sneering cowardly remarks on Ciaran (and the very few who assist him) is a cheap shot. What would you do to improve it “Pete”……….???

  4. Being a newcomer myself, and having played GAA all my life, i agree that Aussie Rules does play second fiddle. Young lads in Ireland grow up with the GAA, with underage teams, school teams, etc. And also, there are other distractions such as hurling, soccer, rugby and basketball all prominent sports in the major cities. To hear ‘Pete’ giving out about a man trying to promote the game here is disgraceful. Its not an easy job by any means, but one that very few people are willing to give up their time to do. Changes are needed, such as neutralising the travelling. With 3 teams in Dublin, 1 in Mullingar and 1 in Cork, It is Unfair for the Cork team to travel to Dublin 3 times, where as the Dublin teams make the trip to Cork once. Surely a half-way point would aid in this situation. And also, if the league started earlier, before the GAA championships begin, it would ensure a greater turnout. Just a few ideas, but something to ponder.

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