New Ireland President shifts focus

Wednesday, May 30 2007 @ 06:38 am ACST

Contributed by: Brett Northey

The short history of the Australian Rules Football League Ireland (ARFLI) is an interesting one with a mixture of extreme highs but also a few low points in what is a unique country for Aussie Rules. On the upside the national side went several years undefeated and claimed the inaugural International Cup back in 2002, and remained very competitive to finish fourth in 2005. The number of clubs also grew quickly from the first beginnings around the turn of the century, but the numbers have ebbed and flowed in the country which has both the advantages and disadvantages of the similarity between Australian and Gaelic Football. With the 2007 season getting underway with five clubs we chat to new ARFLI President Ciarán O' Hara about where he intends focussing the League's efforts.

WFN has reported on the trials and tribulations of building new clubs in Ireland in stories such as Footy Troubles in Ireland (from 2004) and Ireland's league shrinks in 2006 (2006). The new season has now started with the same number of teams as last year, with the Clare Crows still seemingly lost to the game. The new South Dublin Swans, premiers in their first season, are continuing into 2007, as are older clubs the Dublin Demons and Dublin Saints. The Midland Tigers are still struggling on but are an annual concern and there are now a few concerns over the Leeside Lions, last year's runners up. The Irish already tend to play on Gaelic or Rugby fields with less than 18 players, but as always getting numbers willing to travel is difficult and ARFLI hope to grow the number of teams to allow more regional play.

Ciarán O' Hara was recently elected President of ARFLI. The Irishman replaces Tony Watene, who shifts to vice president in recognition of changing life circumstances as a new father. Ciarán confirms: "The only real reason for the change, is a change in Tony's personal circumstances, having become a father just over a year ago. Also he had always said throughout his term that ultimately he wanted to hand the reigns over to an Irishman. It's a source of great comfort to me to have the benefit of Tony's advice in his new role".

We asked Ciarán what's on the horizon in terms of growing the number of clubs in Ireland. "No new teams this year, we are targeting the foundation of three new clubs for 2008, so that we can regionalise our competitions and reduce travel which is proving a major impediment in Cork with the Leeside Lions". There had been hope that with more Irishmen in the AFL and the high profile of International Rules that more locals would try their hand at Australian Football. "Interest is not as high as it was because of the demise of the International Rules, we are currently developing relationships with media partners to help improve on this".

ARFLI are exploring new ways to bring more players into the game, with plans for what they're describing as a "Third Level Institution championship". Ciarán explains: "Precisely that, we have Universities, Institutes of Technology and PLC Colleges, we feel that if we get young enthusiastic individuals involved in playing and administration at a time in their lives when they have time, it will benefit our club competition as these players graduate and join existing clubs or found new ones".

So it looks like ARFLI will change their focus to try to get younger players involved and develop more clubs, Ciarán again: "If there is to be a change in direction it is likely to be an increased focus on development. When myself and Michael Currane originally established ARFLI my role for the first two years was focused exclusively on club development. In recent years because these clubs were well established the focus was purely on running competitions and the national team. In that time I worked on Junior development but in a volunteer organisation we didn't have the time required to make an impact. Now with the league contracting in size and some clubs struggling, I've sat back and taken some decisions on how we move forward. My priorities for this season are retaining the current number of clubs without any more sides folding, the establishment of a Higher Education competition and the playing of a first ever home International by the Irish team. I will be less involved than previous Presidents in the actual running of the competitions, I feel that the clubs need to take responsibility for that, and it will free me up to get the three new club sides up and running for next year".

So the plan is clear - emphasis on the clubs helping themselves, a strong push to develop younger players and new clubs to ultimately support the existing ones, and bringing another international side to Ireland for their first home international (though they have taken on various International Rules sides in practice matches in the past). Given the strength of the Irish Warriors in past matches, a reasonable match-up would need one of the stronger international sides to head to the Emerald Isle. The United States or Canada would always be desirable competitors from across the Atlantic but the likely opposition would be Britain or Denmark - but nothing official has been determined as yet. Although footy hasn't been going from strength to strength in Ireland, it should be remembered it only got a foothold there as recently as 2000. Let's hope footy is about to enter a new phase of growth in Ireland.

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