Eimear Ryan: Irish players an essential part of AFLW's history

There are now four Irish AFLW winners: Bláithín Mackin, Sinead Goldrick, Orla O’Dwyer, and Clare dual star Ailish Considine, who has won twice with Adelaide in 2019 and early 2022
Eimear Ryan: Irish players an essential part of AFLW's history

HISTORY MAKER: Bláithín Mackin of the Demons and Armagh is tackled by Dakota Davidson of the Lions during the 2022 AFLW Season 7 Grand Final match between the Brisbane Lions and the Melbourne Demons at Brighton Homes Arena, Springfield, Ipswich in Ipswich, Australia. Pic: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks in the Mackin household. First, 25-year-old Aimee, one of the top scorers for the Armagh senior ladies football team, won her third TG4 All-Star (and Armagh’s only All-Star of 2022). Then, last Sunday, 23-year-old Bláithín won an AFLW Premiership title with the Melbourne Demons in her first season. (The two brothers on the Armagh men’s football squad, Connaire and Ciaran, are no slouches either.) 

The Mackin sisters’ story of the 2022 season neatly encapsulates female excellence in modern Irish football – as does the achievement of Sinead Goldrick, also on the winning Demons side, who became the first Irishwoman to be both an All-Ireland champion and an AFLW Premiership winner. Having lost the earlier 2022 Grand Final to the Adelaide Crows (there’s been a bit of a switcheroo in the AFLW calendar), this victory must have felt extra sweet for Goldrick.

Last weekend’s AFLW Grand Final, played between the slightly confusing blue-and-purple of Brisbane and blue-and-red of Melbourne, was a tough, tightly contested affair. Watching, you can feel the hardness of the ground, the crunch of the tackles, the humidity in the air. (Just watching Aussie rules makes my knees ache.) 2021 champions Brisbane took control of the match in the first quarter and seemed set to dominate, but a Mackin goal at the start of the second quarter settled Melbourne and they inched their way back into the match. After halftime they redoubled their efforts and cruised into a lead. Their precision in the match’s closing moments was impressive, with calm movement of the ball, maintenance of possession, picking each other out with kicks and marks. In the end, the Melbourne Demons overcome the Brisbane Lions 2–7 (19) to 2–3 (15).

Mackin’s trajectory in her first season has been meteoric, establishing herself as a key forward for Melbourne and being nominated, alongside North Melbourne’s Vikki Wall, as one of three nominees for the league’s best first-year player. (Surprisingly, Wall didn’t receive an All Star this year, despite winning the 2021 TG4 Players’ Player of the Year and being a vital cog in the Meath engine as they retained their All-Ireland title.) 

Goldrick, the sole remaining Dub on the Melbourne books after the departure of Lauren Magee and the retirement of Niamh McEvoy, plays much the same role for the Demons as she does for Dublin: as a powerful, pacy, attacking half-back. Representing Tipp on the Brisbane side was Orla O’Dwyer, rangy, athletic and strong. Despite not adding a second Premiership title to her list of achievements, O’Dwyer was still incredibly busy and influential in the game, making 11 disposals, two marks and six tackles.

It was the first premiership victory for Melbourne since the league’s inception in 2017, and the players’ joy was palpable. Tayla Harris, looking like a character out of Mad Max: Fury Road with her dual strapped shoulders and tattoos, is perhaps one of the league’s most visible players. At just 25, her achievements are many and varied: she is a former champion professional boxer; she’s the subject of the excellent Amazon Prime documentary Kick Like Tayla; and to top it off, she already has a bronze statue in her honour, standing in Melbourne’s Federation Square. 

The statue came about after a 2019 controversy when a photograph of an airborne, mid-kick Harris – then playing for Carlton – came in for widespread misogynistic comments online. The narrative slowly turned, with fellow Aussie rules players coming out in support of Michael Willson’s photo, celebrating it as an image of athleticism and sporting prowess – but Harris had already been bombarded with ugly comments by then. The Melbourne statue depicting the kick now represents not just a moment of athletic excellence, but the double standards often faced by sportswomen, and the resilience they very often need to navigate public opinion while simply doing their job.

Another of Melbourne’s strapped-shoulder brigade was captain Daisy Pearce, a veteran at 34 and something of an AFLW pioneer. In 2006, she – along with GWS Giants and Mayo legend Cora Staunton – was part of the only iteration of the ladies International Rules series between Ireland and Australia. She further plied her footballing trade in AFL Victoria, a state-based precursor to the nationwide AFLW, and has served as Melbourne’s captain since the AFLW’s inaugural season in 2017. She missed the 2019 season due to pregnancy, but there has probably not been a more consistent or visible presence in women’s Aussie rules over the last decade; to see her win her first Premiership is gratifying.

But back to the Irishwomen. There are now four Irish AFLW winners: Mackin, Goldrick, O’Dwyer, and Clare dual star Ailish Considine, who has won twice with Adelaide in 2019 and early 2022. As the AFLW continues to develop, there have been rumblings that the Irish influence will diminish, in part because it will become ever more difficult for Irish players to commit both to their intercounty team and to their professional careers on the other side of the world. 

AFLW also presents a greater injury risk than Gaelic games, which may also be a consideration: think of Cora Staunton’s double leg-break in 2019, Bríd Stack’s career-threatening spinal injury in 2021, and Erika O’Shea’s serious eye injury this year. Staunton, who has not missed a game since making her debut for the Giants in 2017, turns 41 this month; though she has only grown into the sport the longer she’s played it, there could be no complaint if she made the call to step away.

Equally, each AFLW club is now developing nurseries and underage structures: they will soon have their own development squads coming through, and the need for international recruitment to build up their rosters will perhaps lessen. But when they write the history of the AFLW’s first decade – one of the most equitable women’s sports leagues in the world – Irish players will be an essential part of the story.

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