How Irish AFL prospects are being hindered by Covid chaos in Australia

Reduced opportunities to impress could impact on a player’s ability to earn a new deal, writes Maurice Brosnan in Melbourne
How Irish AFL prospects are being hindered by Covid chaos in Australia

BALL IN THE AIR: Cian McBride has endured a challenging 18 months in Australia due to Covid lockdowns and the impact it has had on the AFL. Picture: Albert Perez/Getty Images

Eighteen months after Cian McBride joined Essendon, his mounting frustration reached a boiling point.

2020 was the former Meath minor’s first campaign with the club. Having mulled over several offers, he opted for the Melbourne outfit. Two other Irish players, Conor McKenna and Ross McQuillan, were by his side. The plan was to develop as a key forward in the VFL where he could master the game’s intricacies and systems all while experiencing a lively new city.

By the end of the year, the other two Irish players were gone. The VFL season had been cancelled and he spent the majority of his time living in a Queensland hotel with strict restrictions.

“To be honest, I said it to the club outright. We have one-on-one chats at the start of the year and in midseason. He asked how I was going, and I just said, ‘I will put it this way. How would you feel if you were a year-and-a-half in a new country. You’ve played five competitive games and nothing to show for it. And you’re out of contract at the end of the year!’

“The way I see it, why would a list manager say they’d keep me? It is not the club’s fault. It is not my fault. It is just the way the world has gone.”

The AFL has had one priority for the past two years: Keep the show on the road. The financial hit has already been seismic, but TV broadcast revenue was the saving grace. In 2020, the governing body created hubs where squads would live and train to avoid locked down municipalities. It meant months away from friends and family, a necessary occupational sacrifice to save the entity.

There has been much acclaim for the league hierarchy’s ability to navigate it all, yet ultimately it was the players who took a hit and shouldered the burden. When the season was initially suspended, they accepted 50% pay cuts. Several players were put on JobKeeper, a government subsidy payment.

In the same way the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on certain segments of society, some players were affected more than others. The reality is that the required short-term thinking particularly impacts upcoming and developing prospects.

This is not a uniquely Irish issue. The highly touted Jamarra Ugle-Hagan was the first pick in the last draft. Unusually, the 19-year-old only debuted for the Western Bulldogs in round 17. The lack of games hindered his and countless others’ progression.

Recent graduates from the ‘Irish Experiment’ suffer from the same circumstances, only amplified by the fact they are even more isolated on the other side of the globe and there is a realisation that this is their one opportunity to make it in a professional sport. At the very least, the basic expectation was for the chance to determine if they had the ability to do so.

That is not to say anyone expects sympathy. In the context of the wider world, there is a general understanding that they are privileged in a crisis. Nevertheless, most Irish players are out of contract at the end of the year. Overwhelming uncertainty and exasperation are natural reactions when faced with such turmoil.

The dream was to be a professional athlete. That is the payoff and there was always going to be an associated cost. One that has become more than anyone could have imagined.

Australia was once heralded as the Covid-free template. That is no longer the case. Every single state has endured at least one lockdown in the past two months. State borders are closed. International travel is blocked. Vaccination rates are painfully slow. It has resulted in much upheaval for the AFL.

In June, every club was moved to Melbourne. Come July, a spike in cases there saw them scramble out of the state again. This has a marked impact on younger recruits: How can you plan a two-year progression when most franchises do not even know what the next two weeks will look like?

Wexford’s Barry O’Connor is in his second year with Sydney Swans. In July 2020, he was elevated to their senior list, a reward for his work ethic and technical improvements. As is the tradition for Irish rookies, he continues to play in the VFL learning the trade.

Yet when Sydney snapped into lockdown in June, the Swans were given hours’ notice to get to an airport and fly to Melbourne. O’Connor did not travel with them. As the situation worsened in New South Wales, borders closed.

So, when the VFL fixed the Swans tie against GWS Giants for Melbourne, he was trapped out of state and could not play. Local underage prospects togged out to bolster numbers. The Wexford 23-year-old travelled to the city of Newcastle, which was not in a red zone. Eventually the club managed to arrange travel and get the squad back together, once he had completed another week of isolation.

Earlier this month, Melbourne snapped into lockdown. Then the entire Swans unit boarded a plane and fled to Queensland. The expectation is that they won’t return to their home city until the finals are completed.

Colin O’Riordan, Darragh Joyce, and Conor Nash were all withdrawn from matchday squads because they attended the Australia vs France rugby game in Melbourne. Due to difference in state laws, O’Riordan was forced into two weeks’ quarantine despite testing negative twice. He will miss two weeks of training and two games as a result.

Hawthorn AFL player Conor Nash. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Hawthorn AFL player Conor Nash. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Sligo’s Luke Towey, who signed for Gold Coast Suns in October 2019, has only played six VFL games since joining due to a combination of cancellations and injury.

“I played one practice match before Covid hit,” he explains. “Then they cut a lot of coaches. So my development coach, the one guy teaching me how to play, got cut. I came back after Covid and had no one.

“One coach was very good to me, Tim Clarke. But he was managing the VFL team, working with the seniors and trying to help me. Anything you got out of the first year was a bonus. You may as well have been at home playing football. You learned about a professional lifestyle, but in terms of AFL development, it was minimum.

“Lately it has been much better. Coaches keep saying if I can get through these two years, I’ll be able to get through anything: ‘If you can endure this mentally, you’ll have a long career.’”

Instead of the reserve competition there were scratch games. However, often they were only 12-a-side. For players earmarked for key positions like Collingwood duo Mark Keane and Anton Tohill, the learnings from such an exercise are extremely limited.

Kerryman Stefan Okunbor is in his third year with Geelong. He missed the entirety of 2020 due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Several recent strong showings with the reserves would usually result in contention for a senior start. But the Cats have one of the oldest lists and best defences in the country. They are also top of table. Breaking in is that bit harder.

Stefan Okunbor
Stefan Okunbor

Reduced opportunities to impress could influence a player’s ability to earn a new deal. Only Geelong duo Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor and Hawthorn’s Conor Nash have a contract beyond this season.

To their credit, most teams recognise the exceptional challenges the Irish cohort are experiencing.

This was a factor when it came to granting players permission to play inter-county football during the recent offseason. Numerous players anticipate approval to play with their respective home clubs this year as well.

For the likes of Colin O’Riordan and Mark Keane, that went wonderfully. For others, not so much. “I was a small bit sick and tired by the end of the season, but I kept saying to myself, at least I can go home and play with Meath,” explains McBride.

“I got clearance from the club. I wasn’t home a wet week when I realised I’d broken bones in my feet.

“It happened in Australia as a stress fracture with three games left. I didn’t notice it, had a two-week break, and then when I went home I ramped up training and ended up double and triple fracturing my fifth metatarsal.

“I was sent for surgery last November. I had screws and wires put into my feet. In the last 10 weeks I have only overcome it. I am pain free eight weeks. I came back and did another 16 weeks of rehab. The day I finished, I played the first scratch game of the year. The screw slipped in my foot and I was back in the boot for another few weeks.

“It is just the way it is. You always need a bit of luck, now you need a load of it.”

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