AND JUST LIKE that, the number of Irish players confirmed for the 2020 AFLW season is in double figures.
Louth’s Kate Flood (left) and Leitrim’s Áine Tighe (right) with CrossCoders co-founder and Western Bulldogs star Lauren Spark.
Source: CrossCoders Instagram.
10 have put pen to paper for the league’s fourth year, with eight of those CrossCoders graduates. The programme brought three top ladies footballers Down Under last year, and have already helped five more officially cross codes on a professional level ahead of the new season.
With their weekend-long trial camp coming to a close in Athlone on Sunday, the news broke early Monday morning that Louth and Leitrim star forwards Kate Flood and Áine Tighe had officially signed for Fremantle.
The42 reported last week that the deal was nearly done, but with Freo head coach Trent Cooper in attendance at the camp, the finishing touches were made to get it over the line.
The expansion of the league, and the limited talent pool at the minute as the wait continues for underage stars to filter through means that innovation is needed in the AFLW. Cooper, for one, witnessed the success stories of the Irish players closely last year, and knew he had to explore that option down the line.
“We’d seen the success of the five Irish girls that had played last year,” he told The42, “and now in WA [Western Australia], we have a new team coming in. We’ve gone from 30 players to 60 needed so we thought we’d better have a good look.
“Jason [Hill] and Lauren [Spark] and the team from CrossCoders sent through all the vision so we poured over that which left 30 of the girls.
“We came up with a list of about four that we were really interested in, we spoke to them over the phone and different things and then arrived here to make our final decisions.”
It was a thorough process from the club’s end, but one the players jumped at when the opportunity came about. Well, Flood did anyway.
The Louth captain had a roller coaster year in 2018 as she steered he county to the All-Ireland junior final in Croke Park, battling the highs and lows including the sudden passing of their manager Míchéal McKeown along the way.
Flood was exceptional throughout, an admirable leader both on and off the field and capped the season with the LGFA’s Junior Player of the Year accolade. It was as a result of that that this entire opportunity sparked to life.
Ahead of last year’s All-Ireland final.
Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
“It was just… I dunno, a spur of the moment thing,” the 27-year-old smiles mid-kicking drill at the camp, still finding it hard to come to terms with everything.
“When I got the award last year, Jason from CrossCoders sent me a wee message on Instagram, just saying well done or whatever. He was like, ‘Did you ever think of going playing AFL?’ I was like, ‘No, never,’” she grins.
“He sent me an application form, I filled it out. Then he told me that a few clubs were interested in me. I was like, ‘Well, that’s an opportunity I can’t really say no to’.
“It’s all a bit mad at the minute but yeah, I can’t wait. I’m very excited for it.”
Towering forward Tighe echoes her words from the first question: “I’m really excited.
“I suppose it’s an opportunity of a lifetime really, getting a chance to head down and test yourself against some of the best in a professional environment. I think that’s the big draw.
“I had to think about it, but I suppose it’s a dream for any athlete to be able to play in a professional environment and train in a professional environment, and have the level of support that the clubs are showing: the training facilities, the strength and conditioning, the recovery.
“It’s every athlete’s dream. When the opportunity does pop up, I think you’d be mad to say no.”
Both Tighe and Flood can vouch for the fact that they felt a special draw to Fremantle after chatting to Cooper and AFLW manager Wade Spilcker, as well as several of the players.
“Easy going” and “genuine” are some of the words used to describe them and how helpful and supportive they’ve been through the entire signing experience.
Tighe kicking at the camp.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
“They’ll be making sure that we’re getting everything that we need more so than just what they want for the club,” Flood adds. “They’re really focusing on us as players, which is a really good thing.
“I’ve never been over there before, so it really is a huge step. You do need that reassurance that you’re going to be well looked after. The lads definitely do give you that feeling.”
While she’s never been to Australia, she had also never played Aussie Rules.
Also a talented soccer player having lined out for Raheny United (now Shelbourne) and Newry City through the years, the St Patrick’s star impressed at the weekend’s camp with her practice with the oval ball paying dividends already.
“I got one of the balls off the internet and I’ve just been up in the field kicking it around,” she laughs.
“It’s mental like. But I suppose you will pick it up. We’ve picked up Gaelic… I know we’ve been playing all our lives but the skills are transferable. It’s going to take practice and that’s what the lads are there for.
“They said if you’ve to focus on your kicking, there’ll be someone there to go kicking with you for two or three hours a day. We don’t have that at home as such. We’ve to go out and do it among ourselves whereas they have professional trainers there showing you the proper technique and making sure that you pick it up.
“It’s a massive opportunity for anyone going that none of us can really turn down. It still hasn’t really sunk in but yeah, I’m really excited now.”
Tighe, 27, likewise has been putting in the practice with the Sherrin. She’s not involved in the Leitrim set-up this year, having recently made a full recovery from an ACL injury but she’s easing herself back in with the club and looking forward to the next challenge.
Speaking with Cooper in Athlone.
“Cramming in the last few weeks practice,” she laughs. “I got a ball a few months ago so I’m just trying to get out and get used to the kicking and the catching.
“I’ve been watching the girls over there for the last couple of years, I’d know a good few of them through different contacts and being in college, and I’ve been able to follow them and see how they’re getting on; the challenges and what they’re finding difficult.
“They’ve all had such positive experiences out there. They were great in terms of answering questions and bouncing things back and forward. I have the height of time for all of them and they were really generous with their time.”
While the duo can’t give enough glowing reports about the club and their new team-mates, a special word goes to the work CrossCoders have done through the entire process.
Their support and guidance has been something else, they say, and that’s set to continue between the pair as they set off on this adventure together.
“I was kind of hesitant to say that I’d travel on my own,” Flood concedes, “but now that I know of another Irish girl in the same boat as me going over, not knowing who’s over there and having to do the same thing… it’s going to be good. It’ll be interesting.”
“I think that’s going to be a massive help even in terms of practicing the skills and honing the skills,” Tighe adds on having a team-mate from these shores in Perth with her.
“Having someone to be able to go out and have a kick with and practice and to answer questions about rules and whatever, I’m sure we’ll be able to bounce some things off each other. It’ll be good.”
Flood practicing her kicking skills last Friday.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
While Tighe’s thoughts are probably a little more distracted by the AFLW dream down the line, Flood has to ensure her entire focus is on Louth and the summer of championship football ahead.
She’s spoken to — and cleared it all with — the Wee county’s management team and some players but at the time of our conversation, there had been no official announcement. It’s all out in the open now, but of course nothing has changed regarding her stance.
“I’m trying to keep it as low-key as possible just because we do have so much with Louth coming up, and the same with club,” she says. “I’m trying to keep myself grounded, and play out the year with Gaelic here first.
“When it’s all over I suppose I can get psyched for that! It’s going to be good. Everyone I’ve been talking to has said that I’ll absolutely love it over there so…”
Both evidently enjoying their time at the camp as they learned more and more about the game, Cooper was also clearly pleased to see them in the flesh.
Happy out with his newest signings, the fact that he could see their progress first-hand made this leap of faith a little less scary, for sure.
He delves a little deeper into the pre-signing and communication processes, explaining that the player-to-player interviews Tighe and Flood referred to were for two reasons: so his players could talk to them, find out more and judge them, and for the Irish girls to gain further information and most importantly, feel more comfortable.
Glittering reviews followed, of course, and the Fremantle boss was delighted to see his new additions in real life rather that through video footage. They’ll most definitely fit in at the Dockers, he says.
With AFL Ireland’s Mike Currane.
Source: AFL Ireland Twitter.
“Aine was a specific need,” he explains. “We haven’t performed too well in the rook because we’ve been undersized the last two years. Then, we lost both our rooks. We’ve got the shortest list in the AFLW so we needed some height.
“We couldn’t believe it when we saw Aine’s vision; her height, but then how athletic she is and how good she is around the ground. We’re really keen on that. To see her today, and to see her test, we’re very excited about her.
“Kate looks like a really powerful forward, she’s high-scoring, and we think the way she plays the game, she’ll really fit in with our game style.
“She’ll have to learn the skills of the oval ball but as far as the game style, I think we play a game pretty similar that’ll suit her. That was the attraction with her for sure.”
He was pleased to see plenty of potential at the camp overall, emphasising that the Gaelic football crossover has been proven time and time again in the past — and will continue that way.
“It’s the most transferable game there is,” he grins. “Definitely. As I look here now, I can see some other players who hopefully will get on other AFLW lists. I’m sure they can make impact. If they don’t, I think we’ll be back next year looking for a couple more.”
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