AFL may be the leading sport in Australia but it has some way to go before it can claim top spot in Ireland and Europe but in typical Aussie fashion they are giving it one hell of a go. SportsnewsIreland caught up with AFL Ireland national coach Tom Madigan to discuss this increasingly popular sport.
“AFL in Ireland is as strong as it’s ever been with 7 clubs in operation; the governing body, AFL Ireland, has placed a strong emphasis on building the league up and increasing its popularity. Aussie Rules is all about the youth, so the next phase for us is to try and get into the Universities. We’ve just gotten into Jordanstown University in the north and look set to also get into Blanchardstown; this is a great boost for the sport”
While AFL in Ireland is purely amateur it does offer something that the GAA, its main source of players, can’t and that is chance to become a professional sportsman “The big attraction of the AFL is that it does offer the elite the chance to go to Australia and play professional AFL. GAA doesn’t offer that, our aim is to get to a position where the first place the AFL will look for overseas players will be the leagues in Europe”
Ireland recently had 5 players on a World team that played the best of the best up and coming Australian AFL players in London and despite the team getting well beaten Tom felt it was a positive experience “We were never going to beat them, Australians live and breathe the game and start playing from a young age but it’s a good learning curve for the players. “
“We had a young fella in the team, Owen Carroll, a 16 year old from Offaly who has recently affiliated himself to us and it was good experience for him to see the standard that youngsters in Australia are at. That’s why it important to have someone like Carroll getting involved in the game at his age, there are a lot of skills needed to play to a high standard.
It’s a great boost for us, but we have a long way to go before we can produce an elite player. The players from the academy side that came over will have some of the best AFL player in the next few years; it’s the system that Chris Judd and Luke Hodge both came through.
The AFL are certainly committed to increasing the popularity of the sport and according to Tom views Europe as a big market; AFL is not just played in Ireland, it’s also very popular in the UK and in Denmark while Iceland, Holland, Germany, Spain and France are also starting to take an interest in the game. The AFL has recently put a permanent guy in London who will manage the development of the AFL in Europe. It’s a full time paid role so it shows how serious they are about it. “
“We also have an AFL European commission that meets every 3 months, it’s a group of about 20/30 guys that get together and look at ways to increase the popularity and to help promote the game in Europe. Ireland is one of the smallest nations but we have been leading the way for AFL for the last 10 years, a lot of the countries looks at us as a role model, especially as we’ve already made all the mistakes.
Mistakes may have been made but Ireland are the current European champions and will compete in the International cup in Australia in August but for Tom and his team it not just about preparing for an International tournament there is also the added pressure of dealing with financial constraints
“AFL Ireland is entirely self funded so it brings it own challenges but we have a group of players that are extremely committed to our plan. It will cost about 3,500 a player to go to Australia to compete and that doesn’t include the costs of travelling to Dublin from Cork and Belfast for the camps, it’s a big ask and requires a lot of dedication. Sadly I just had a very good player pull out of the tournament because he can’t get the money to go”
As for the tournament themselves, “It’s hard to say how Ireland will do, we’re fourth in the world ranking and European Champions, the last time out in 2008 we were below par but we’ve done a lot of work to make the team competitive”.
“Papa new Guinea, Nauru and New Zealand will be the teams to beat although the AFL have pumped a lot of money in the game in South Africa too so it will interesting to see how they’ve developed.”
“But we also fancy our chances, Andrew Weasley, who was assistant coach for us at the European Championship, has moved back to Australia and he’s been busy seeking out Irish players in Oz.
We’ve also received a big boost recently when John Heslin was cleared by the AFL to play for us while Mick Finn of Heidelberg was the player of the series in 2008 and will be a great asset to us.
Cian Quigley of the Leeside Lions is another to look out for; he’s the captain of the team and a great player. My aim is to be in the final in the MCG on the 27th August”.
Given the time and effort that Tom and his players put into the game don’t bet against them getting there. If you are interested in playing AFL and want to know more, than please log onto http://www.arfli.com/