Exactly two years today, Rian O’Neill of Crossmaglen, south Armagh, flew across the world to one of the oldest sporting institutions in the world — the North Melbourne Australian Rules club — to see how he might shape up as a prospective player.
O’Neill had already been identified by Aussie Rules scouts and brought to former Collingwood Magpies and Down All-Star Marty Clarke for some coaching sessions and an education process after parents and players have decided to try out the oval ball. Clarke liked much about O’Neill and felt he was a genuine stand-out candidate.
“In terms of his footballing ability, his game-sense, his size, his aggression,” recalls Clarke. “His kicking of the Australian Rules ball, off either foot was as good as I have seen from anyone coming through the programme, or even those who have played AFL.
“It was remarkable how he picked up the kicking in particular and he could obviously mark the ball as well.”
But something didn’t compute for North Melbourne. They were concerned about what they call ‘explosive ability;’ the tools to collect a bobbling ball and make your way out of congestion into space.
“I don’t have the figures, but I think when it came to being in the gym in a pair of trainers, Rian probably doesn’t blow away recruiters and these guys with his raw figures, but I never saw Rian on the field being exposed for speed or explosiveness,” says Clarke.
I was similar myself, I never really tested that well in the gym in front of people. I just wanted to go out and play football and I think that’s what got me a contract in Australia. Clubs have missed out because they focus too much at times what testing has shown.
You can never say never, but rather than Clarke saying that O’Neill will not get to play AFL now, he looks forward to watching him deliver more of the incredible summer he is having with Armagh, capped by two goals against Monaghan last weekend and his best John Cena goal celebrations. Much like Clarke, he drifts out in search of the ball if things are not happening.
“I think it is good that Kieran McGeeney has given him that respect, that he has that freer role to play off instinct.
“The big thing that came out of the training sessions was that he is certainly a keen listener and seems to be coachable. But he will also do his own thing. They can see that he plays on his sense of how things are going.”
“I don’t think it has come and gone,” says Stevie McDonnell, who as the 2003 Player of the Year and one half of Armagh’s most lethal forward combination, has watched O’Neill’s career with glee and believes there might be something in Australia for him after all.
“He is still only 20, 21. When you look at RianO’Neill in comparison to a lot of young players, he has an advantage because he is really well physically developed in terms of his size and physique and ready-made for that type of game.
“He already has that in his locker. Ultimately, you love to see somebody give it a go as a professional, and why wouldn’t you take that opportunity?”
There are certain similarities in O’Neill and McDonnell. When Armagh won their first Ulster in 17 years back in 1999, McDonnell spent the year looking on from the bench, learning how to become a county footballer.
When he was unleashed in 2000, teams were pre-occupied by Oisín McConville and Diarmuid Marsden before they noticed the skinny kid from Killeavy who could kick points from tight angles and loved feasting on goals. O’Neill has a little of that, landing into an Armagh team where opposition sides have focused their analysis on Jamie Clarke.
“A lot of people would have liked to have seen something of him last year, but I think management have done a good job in terms of holding him back and getting him right and ready for this campaign,” says McDonnell.
“He has learned a lot in his short time at inter-county and he would have learned from playing with the likes of Jamie at Cross down through the years. But also coming in and seeing how the likes of Andrew Murnin plays in the full- forward lines, how Soupy Campbell can play in any position.
“It’s something I have noticed about Rian. He likes to move around the forward line a bit to get his hands on the ball.
He doesn’t shirk responsibility for a young lad and that tells me he enjoys playing in that set-up.
And, he has that hunger for goals. Over a weekend that we saw numerous examples of goal chances being abdicated for the hand-passed point, O’Neill stood out for his confidence to leather a ball to the rigging. “You can never have enough desire for goals if you are an Armagh supporter looking at players like that. It is brilliant to see,” says McDonnell with delight.
“If, by getting scores you have an eye for goal then even better because goals win games. And they were critical in Armagh’s victory over Monaghan at the weekend. He relishes the opportunity of being in front of goals and if it is a half chance, he will pull the trigger.”
It’s that kind of threat that has McDonnell believing in his county as they head to Castlebar for tonight’s round three qualifier against a vulnerable and injury-hit Mayo.
“I am convinced Armagh will beat them. It’s not just me being the Armagh supporter. It’s me looking at the forward lines and I believe Armagh’s forward line is better than theirs.”
The game of the season, awaits.