Irish news: Ricky Nixon kicks tyres in the Emerald Isle


 by Peter Lenaghan


For the past three weeks, Australian Rules football has been prime-time television viewing on the emerald isle. The focus? Not St Kilda’s outstanding form, or Jimmy Stynes’s cancer battle, nor the many suitors trying to woo Nathan Buckley. Instead, a documentary team has told the story of the young jewels of Gaelic football being put on display and perused by a devious pillager and discerning buyers from distant shores.


The defection of some of Ireland’s best young footballers to the AFL remains a concern for the Gaelic sport’s administrators. But the Irish Times’ columnist, Sean Moran, recently wrote that with just four Irishmen currently on senior playing lists in the AFL and a handful of others on rookie lists, the effect of the departures on Gaelic football has been negligible. Moran noted that with the Gaelic Players’ Association pushing for official recognition and the GAA dealing with on-field violence, the Irish game had bigger problems to deal with than the AFL’s recruiters and an agent-provocateur, Ricky Nixon.


It is all a far cry from the ruckus the prominent player agent caused last August when he and the AFL recruiters arrived in Ireland, sparking concern about a potential “talent drain” to Australia. But the momentum the debate enjoyed last year has dissipated. Perhaps the lack of renewed media interest in the issue can be put down to problems with documentary itself. Donald Clarke reviewed the first instalment of the “The Oz Factor” for the Irish Times and remarked that the title made the programme sound like a reality TV special or talent quest, when a shorter, more serious documentary was merited. The reviewer’s overall verdict: odd.


The ingredients for a trashy reality TV hit are all there; the hungry competitors trying to secure the big bucks on offer, a loaded and cheesy voiceover, divided loyalties, concerned parents, ruthless judges, and, most importantly, an arch-villain in Nixon. The former Carlton, St Kilda and Hawthorn player and Flying Start boss is introduced to Irish viewers as a cocky and outspoken player agent who manages some of the AFL’s biggest names, including Nick Riewoldt. Standing up for Irish virtue is the coach of the current All-Ireland football champions, Mickey Harte, and the journalist and broadcaster, Tom McGurk. While McGurk derides the pursuit of money in sport, Harte states the loss of youngsters to the AFL poses a grave threat to the Irish game, “the last bastion of amateurism.” Nixon notes how he has been described by some as the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


What becomes clear throughout the series is that Nixon knows how to talk to young men and stoke the flames of their ambition. To the young Irish footballers, he sells the prospect of sun, fame and big-money contracts. All of the players talk about the massive opportunity being presented to them. Money makes its first cameo appearance in the series during a much-publicised training camp held last August at Castlebar, in western Ireland. Nixon offers €50 to the first player who can kick a football through a basketball ring from the opposite end of the court. After several awkward attempts from young men struggling to acquire a new skill, Conor Meredith from County Laois steps up, kicks truly and pockets the prize. Meredith goes on to become a focal point for the documentary.


After the much-publicised camp, a handful of players are offered the chance by AFL clubs to attend pre-season training. The series closely follows the fortunes of these few youngsters, including Meredith, Antrim’s Niall McKeever and James Kielt from County Derry. The twist in the documentary’s storyline comes when Kerry’s Tommy Walsh also makes the journey Down Under. Walsh was not available for Nixon’s training camp, but is the reigning GAA Young Footballer of the Year and is highly regarded by the player agent. With his height, chiselled jaw, strong physique and close-cropped blond hair, he resembles Dolph Lundgren playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. No wonder Nixon is so excited.


Ultimately, Kielt and Walsh opt to return home, while McKeever fails to impress sufficiently, and he opens a rejection letter from Richmond in Nixon’s office. The tall and athletic northerner is devastated, and struggles to utter a reply when asked for a reaction to the news. He is eliminated, as they say in reality television. That leaves Meredith the last man standing, and the moment he is offered a place on North Melbourne’s rookie list becomes the crowning of “The Oz Factor” champion.


What becomes obvious after three episodes of “The Oz Factor” is the difficulty the Irishmen face in making a smooth transition to the AFL. Stynes, Tadgh Kennelly and Collingwood’s Marty Clarke, who adapted and thrived in Australian football, will be the exception, rather than the rule. Drafting a young footballer who has to become acquainted with an oval-shaped ball, be taught how to kick and handpass again, all while living a long way from home remains a risky venture for any AFL club.


While Meredith remains in Australia and is one of several Irish rookies trying to secure a place on a senior AFL list, the other prominent targets of Nixon and “The Oz Factor” are continuing to make names for themselves at home. McKeever was a part of the Antrim side that lost Sunday’s Ulster province final to Tyrone and is reportedly on his way to Brisbane next season, while Walsh and his Kerry teammates are continuing to battle to reach the All-Ireland football quarter finals. Nixon, meanwhile, continues to be a favourite target of the Irish media. A recent report in the Irish Independent said a Nixon plan to establish AFL coaching clinics in primary schools would “put the fear of God in GAA people”.


GAA PROVINCIAL FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS (All through to All-Ireland quarter finals)

Ulster (northern) – Tyrone

Connacht (western) – Mayo

Leinster (eastern) – Dublin

Munster (southern) – Cork


FINAL QUALIFYING ROUND (Starts this weekend – winners through to All-Ireland Quarter Finals)

Antrim v Kerry

Galway v Donegal

Kildare v Wicklow

Limerick v Meath or Roscommon

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