The GAA are to undertake a study into why so many Irish players struggle to return to top-flight Gaelic football after a spell in the AFL.
Of the 58 athletes who have signed for AFL clubs (seven inked contracts this year), only five have made more than 100 Premiership appearances - Seán Wight (150), Jim Stynes (264), Tadhg Kennelly (197), Pearce Hanley (145 and counting) and Zach Tuohy (168 and counting).
Just 24 players have actually played one or more Premiership games.
It’s understood the welfare of players returning home from Australia is one of the reasons for the research, which is likely to involve interviews with those who have come home and tried to resume their Gaelic football careers. Having played at least one AFL game, just three players - Paul Earley (1985), Kennelly (2009) and Martin Clarke (‘10) - have claimed All-Stars upon their return.
GAA officials are keen to raise awareness of the challenges that heading Down Under presents in terms of homesickness, which has been cited by the likes of Paddy Brophy, Daniel Flynn, John Heslin and Ciarán Kilkenny as reasons for their early returns. From Tommy Walsh to Ciarán Byrne, the extent of the injuries sustained by players in Australia has also been a cause for worry.
While the likes of Laois’ pair Colm Begley and Brendan Quigley, Kildare trio Paddy Brophy, Flynn and Paul Cribben, Armagh’s Kevin Dyas, Longford’s Michael Quinn, Brendan Murphy of Carlow, Derry’s Chrissy McKaigue and Caolan Mooney of Down have returned to line out regularly for their counties after significant spells in Australia, others haven’t been so successful.
After a two-year absence, former young footballer of the year Walsh has recently been recalled to the Kerry set-up but chose to leave it due to a lack of game-time. Others like Kyle Coney (Tyrone), Seán Hurley (Kildare), Conor Meredith (Laois), Niall McKeever (Antrim) and Declan O’Mahony (Dublin) also came back although have been in and out of their respective county panels.
In recent months, players such as Byrne (St Mochta’s, Louth and Carlton), Cillian McDaid (Monivea-Abbey, Galway and Carlton) and Ray Connellan (Athlone, Westmeath) have returned home. Cork’s 2010 All-Ireland winner Ciarán Sheehan finished up with last year before taking a job with the AFL players union in Melbourne while Hanley’s brother Cian came back earlier this year to link up with the Mayo seniors.
Currently, there is an all-time high of 14 Irish players contracted to AFL clubs - Hanley (Ballaghaderreen, Mayo and Gold Coast Suns), Tuohy (Portlaoise, Laois and Geelong Cats), Conor McKenna (Eglish, Tyrone and Essendon), Conor Glass (Glen, Derry and Hawthorn), Colin O’Riordan (JK Brackens, Tipperary and Sydney Swans), Mark O’Connor (Dingle, Kerry), Conor Nash (Simonstown Gaels, Meath and Hawthorn), Darragh Joyce (Rower-Inistioge, Kilkenny), Red Óg Murphy (Curry, Sligo and North Melbourne), Stefan Okunbor (Na Gaeil, Kery and Geelong Cats), James Madden (Ballyboden St Enda’s, Dublin and Brisbane Lions), Mark Keane (Mitchelstown and Collingwood), Anton Tohill (Swatragh, Derry and Collingwood), Callum Brown (Limavady, Derry and Greater Western Sydney).
Last week, 20 players attended an AFL combine in Dublin overseen by Clarke - Rian O’Neill, Ross McQuillan (both Armagh), Cillian Rouine, Seán O’Donoghue (both Clare), Seán Walsh (Cork), Peadar Mogan (Donegal), Paul O’Shea, Colm Moriarty (both Kerry), Mark Barrett (Kildare), Pearce Dolan (Leitrim), Josh Ryan (Limerick), Conor Horan (Mayo), Liam Byrne, Jason Scully (both Meath), Rory Egan (Offaly), Luke Towey (Sligo), Conal and Jack Kennedy (Tipperary), Barry O’Connor and Ronan Devereaux (both Wexford).
Carlow’s Jordan Morrissey is reportedly close to signing up with Essendon, while Oisín McWilliams (Derry) and Pierce Laverty of Down are also being monitored by AFL clubs. McWilliams trialled with North Melbourne and Laverty attended a combine along with Keane, Morrissey and Laverty in Melbourne.