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Saturday, February 22 2020 @ 11:11 am ACDT

Ireland 2013 – The More Things Change…

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Of course, the above title should finish “…the more they stay the same.” Yet, oddly, in the case of Australian Rules footy in Ireland, that whole saying could be reversed. The more the game seems to be staying much as it was last year, it is in fact changing by degrees…and for the better.

Cian Quigley, president of ARFLI (Australian Rules Football League Ireland), points out that the league has the same teams as last year. Cian explains that “We have the same number of teams as always but the Midwest Magpies have rebranded to the Galway Magpies. Playing numbers in the Irish league are slowly increasing and the competition between teams is very close. The reigning premiers the Belfast Redbacks lost their opening game to a team [North Leinster Giants] that didn't make finals last year!”

But bubbling beneath the surface, change is occurring. This is best seen through the arrival of the UCC Bombers in Cork. Whilst they are some way away from playing in the national league on equal terms, the fact they now exist, and are actively playing games, means an eighth Irish team is potentially near.

The re-branding of the Galway Magpies might be seen as a run of the mill name change. But the reality is that as the game continues to change and evolve, clubs often see a need to continue their own evolution. It is a healthy sign of recognising the need for a new or refreshed image, new markets or simply new statements of belonging or identity.

The AFL in Australia has spent millions in creating player drafts and salary caps and changing whatever it could to push for equalisation across the clubs. In Ireland, that equalisation appears as if it might be achieved simply through the increased player numbers. North Leinster is a good example of a club that has closed the gap on last year’s premiership team. Only the club could tell you what is different from last year, but only 2 or 3 new players can change the balance of a team.

This coming weekend will see the second game played between the Irish Warriors and the Great Britain Bulldogs. Going down to the Bulldogs in the first game at Guildford 59 to 7 would have hurt, especially since it was only the second time Great Britain had won. But this weekend sees the Bulldogs coming to Dublin, and a chance for redemption for the Warriors. As Cian says, “on the international front Ireland play England this weekend in Dublin. These are always closely fought games and the Warriors will be looking to avenge the loss they suffered last time out.”

But across the board, Irish competitions are getting stronger and showing signs of a higher standard spreading across the national competition. The fact that Belfast won their first premiership in 2012 shows that the Lions, Demons and Swans do not have a monopoly on the competition.

Also, the Province of Origin match in 2012 saw Munster defeat Connacht in the final. This year saw a new champion as Ulster defeated Munster. This already shows a spread of talent across the provinces in the two years the competition has been run. So far the Irish Warriors have won every Australian Embassy Plate since the move to a stand alone game against the embassy selection team in 2010. Maybe, too, this dominance might swing and show another example of the talent spreading wider.

Last year the Euro Cup was an Irish double with both the Warriors and the Banshees taking top honours. Whether or not anyone cares to admit it, this has raised the bar higher, both for Irish teams to defend their titles, and for other nations to topple them. This alone means that 2013 should be very interesting on the international front. Cian also points out that “this year will also see Ireland hold the European Championships. We're hoping to follow the great standard set by the Swedes and Danes last time out.”

Whether or not the current crop of AFL players in Australia came through local teams or not doesn’t change the fact that Irish footy has a number of new foot soldiers doing their country proud. Pearce Hanley, Marty Clarke, Setanta O’hAilpin, Zach Tuohy, Niall McKeever, Tommy Walsh, Caolan Mooney and others are following in the footsteps of Jim Stynes, Sean Wight and Tadgh Kennelly as Irish ambassadors for the game. It will be interesting to see whether the two Irish lads, Emmett Bradley and Sean Hurley, who attended last year’s AFL Draft Combine as international invitees will be the next two names to watch for.

So, whilst it might appear that the Aussie Rules footy scene is travelling along “normally”, it is clear that the game is evolving and growing in Ireland across a whole range of areas.

And that is a very good thing.

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