Irish a contender at Aussie Rules European Championships 9 years ago

Irish a contender at Aussie Rules European Championships

Ireland will be one of the teams competing in the inaugural European Championships in Australian Rules football from August 1 to August 7.

Unlike most team sports, it’s a competition Ireland have a genuine chance of winning.

The first ever International Cup in Aussie Rules took place in 2002 in Melbourne, with eleven teams competing from across the world. Ireland emerged as the champions following a 32-point victory over Papua New Guinea (Australia doesn’t compete in the International cup).

Ireland haven’t reached those heights since - New Zealand and Papua New Guinea have overtaken them - yet they were still the best European team and finished in the top four in the last two International Cups.

“Our Gaelic background is definitely our advantage,” Aidan Hickey, a member of the Irish Australian League panel, told JOE this week.

“A lot of the training drills would be similar to Gaelic football, and that’s our biggest help.”

Aidan only started playing Aussie Rules this year, after one of his friends asked him to train with ARFLI League team the Dublin Saints. He kept it up for the year and really enjoyed it - though the art of kicking took some time to master.

“The ball is difficult to get used to at first,” he says. “We often find ourselves reverting to what we know, especially when we are put under pressure. Gaelic footballers kick from the side, rugby players look like they are kicking for touch. It takes a lot of practise to try and get the ball spinning backwards like Australian rules players do. It took me a few months to do that properly, but I got used to it.”

The Dublin Saints in action (Photograph © Peter May)

There are other differences between the two codes too.

“There are certain things that are against the rules but which you try and get away with in Gaelic. In Aussie Rules you can pull jerseys, you can drag players down.

“You want to put in your challenge, get the ball and keep going. The tackle is a lot more physical and clear cut. If you are within five yards of the ball you can tackle anyone on their team, even if they’re not really involved in the play, or just watching what’s going on.

“You can shoulder them, drag them to the ground, or do whatever you want. I was caught a couple of times just standing there, a bit cold. You have to be aware at all times. When you play the ball your job isn’t done, you have to follow it and support the guy you gave the ball to.

“You can shield the opposition away, that’s something we are trying to get used to, that they are trying to drill into us in training - in Gaelic if you give a good pass you basically think your job is done, but in Aussie Rules you have to do a lot more running, and then the tackling and hitting is harder.

“You have to be in peak physical condition, because the pitch is much bigger, and you have to cover a lot more ground. And it is an 80 minute game, so you have to [pace yourself], as you're going to get a lot more tired."

Aussie Rules in Ireland

Teams from Dublin, Cork, Westmeath, Louth, Galway, Clare and Belfast compete in the Australian Rules League of Ireland (the ARFLI League), which has been won for the last two seasons by the Dublin Demons. Players who impressed during the national championships were selected for trial matches, out of which the Irish team was selected for the European Championships.

“The Irish club teams have a lot of Australians playing on them, and their skills are well above ours," admits Hickey. "For the national team, however, you have to be Irish. We’re aiming to win the European Championships obviously. Some of the countries would’ve less experience but I know Great Britain and Denmark would’ve been playing all the world cups so far.

“Great Britain might be one of the teams to look out for as there are a lot of Australians in Great Britain, so they would probably have a lot involved in clubs. Therefore some of the players playing in England would’ve gained experience playing against AFL players, so that’s going to improve them."

Sweden-Denmark 2010 will be the first European Championship, and will replace the now defunct Atlantic Alliance Cup (which Ireland won in 2001, defeating Denmark in the final).

With rugby sevens soon to be amalgamated into the Olympic games, it's possible that Aussie Rules might one day be included in that worldwide jamboree.

“Aussie Rules is played internationally, so I don’t see why it couldn’t be an Olympic sport," says Hickey. "Maybe if they insisted that it was played with only amateurs like in boxing, it would be brilliant. A lot of players would be coming out of the woodwork if that happened. All the top Gaelic players would be interested. We’d have a definite chance at a medal.”

For now Ireland will just have to concentrate on the international tournaments that are available. Next year the International Cup is set to take place in Australia, and the selection is going to be even more competitive. The Irish management are set to look for Irish players playing Aussie Rules in Australia. You never know, Setanta O hAilpin might even be wearing the Irish jersey.

“If O hAilpin wants to play for Ireland he can, but he’s playing professionally so I know which one he’d prefer. But you never know.”

The European Championships will take place between 1 August and 7 August 2010, and Ireland have been placed in a group with Sweden, Germany, and Croatia.

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Conor Hogan