Aussie Rules: The Irish sports stars playing down under

An interview with Luke Towey on his journey from underage football in Sligo to Melbourne

With every passing graduation, media outlets across the country begin discussing the so-called “brain drain”; the emigration of Ireland’s newest graduates in search of well-paying jobs not available in their own country. What is often less discussed is the drain on Ireland’s national sport as players from the GAA world opt to move abroad in search of sporting glory. It is a nightmare for club and county selectors, who now have an even smaller pool of players to choose from. For the lucky few, it is a golden chance to forge a career playing the sport you love – or at least one that is very similar to it. As the Australian rules football (commonly known as Aussie Rules) pre-season gets underway in November, another pack of Irish GAA players will travel down under to join professional Aussie Rules sides, swapping the round ball for the oval one. 

Aussie Rules is Australia’s national sport and has the 4th highest average attendance of any domestic league in the world, according to the Australian Football League (AFL). The origins of Aussie Rules lie within rugby and English public school football games. The sport was officially codified in Melbourne in 1859 with the help, incidentally, of Trinity and Dublin University Football Club (DUFC) alumnus Thomas H. Smith. The current national competition, the AFL, was formed in 1990. Every year between late March and early September, 18 clubs battle it out for a place in the Grand Final, where the winner is eventually crowned. 

This year, Sligo’s Luke Towey became one of the most recent Irish players to trade the jersey for a guernsey when he was picked up by an AFL side.

This year, Sligo’s Luke Towey became one of the most recent Irish players to trade the jersey for a guernsey when he was picked up by an AFL side. Towey, 20, who has played underage football for Sligo, was signed by Queensland side Gold Coast Suns. His recruitment comes after a gruelling selection period which included trials at University College Dublin (UCD) under the gaze of former Collingwood and Down footballer Marty Clarke. This was followed by working with Melbourne clubs in April, before the AFL Combine, a brutal multi-disciplinary test of skill, athleticism and mental agility. Having finally come to the end, Towey can now look forward to the beginning of what is undoubtedly an exciting prospect: “It’s been a long process. I’ve been in the system for about 12 months at this stage, and for some guys, it takes even longer, maybe a couple of years to get into it. I’m lucky in that sense. But I cannot wait to get started into preseason, learn as much as I can, take in the culture of Australia, learn about the sport.”

Towey generally played at half-back for his club side, St. Molaise Gaels, a position which traditionally requires speed, agility and hand-eye coordination. From what the coaches have told him, he feels he will play a similar role for the Suns: “They’ll be looking to use my pace, break the line, get up into the attack and get the play started from there. A lot of Irish lads seem to transfer easier into the half-back line so I think it will suit me […] I suppose, being a playmaker will come into that as well, so I think it will be very similar to what I’d do at home.”

They just treat you nearly as one of their own

As Aussie Rules is seen as a national institution in Australia, one could assume that international players may not be so well received. However, Towey explains that his initial experience with the home crowds has been nothing but positive: “When I arrived in Melbourne in April, there were three other Irish lads with me, and the Australians were so, so welcoming, and you literally felt like a part of the group – we were blown away by it. They just treat you nearly as one of their own.”

This view appears in stark contrast to the views held by many Irish people. Recently, a number of Irish rugby players have come under for supposedly taking advantage of residency rules. Players like CJ Stander and Bundee Aki, born in South Africa and Samoa respectively, have been accused of taking the position of a player born in Ireland. These criticisms are often quite cynical, with people assuming that players are moving over for the opportunity of playing international sport. They don’t take into consideration the cost, both financially and mentally, of moving thousands of miles just to play the sport you love with only the chance of donning the green jersey as a reward years down the line. 

“I understand what you’re saying about ‘these Irish players coming over and taking spots’, but I don’t think that even comes into their mind. I think it’s kind of different to Ireland; I feel if an Australian came into an Irish team, most Irish people might feel that way, but I feel in Australia, they see that this is difficult for us, and see it more in terms of the team – you’re coming over to benefit the team.” Towey believes that this more sympathetic, rational outlook is a by-product of professional sport: “People understand the bigger picture and what you’re working for, so you put the team first.” 

Questions have been raised in the past concerning the impact that this drain of players is having on struggling GAA clubs. There have even been suggestions that clubs losing players to Australia should receive compensation from AFL teams. These notions have been dismissed by current players, including Derry’s Anton Tohill. Last year, Tohill, currently with Collingwood, pointed out the complications that could arise if such an approach was taken: “I played soccer and Gaelic football, so who do you compensate? Can you really say that it was all me going to the Gaelic football club that’s brought me on considering that it was me doing my own work and preparing myself in the gym?  No-one in the club pushed me to go to the gym and push myself on as much as myself. It has come from me. So then who do you compensate… me?”

While he doesn’t go quite as far as Tohill, Towey understands the difficulties clubs face, but insists that his team will bounce back: “It’s hard on any club, especially a young club like ours losing a young player, but the structures that they have are just absolutely brilliant for me and they have developed me so well. Their underage system is brilliant so hopefully them young lads can come up now and push on with that Senior team. Last year, the Minors won the Sligo ‘A’ title, so hopefully that will lead to future success.”

Overall, Towey can hardly contain his excitement as he begins his new adventure. He begins his pre-season with the Suns in early November and with Mayo’s Pearce Hanley there to guide him, all the structures are in place for him to have a long successful career in the AFL: “When you get an opportunity like this to play sports at a professional level, it’s not for everybody, but I just couldn’t turn it down. It’s not an easy decision to make, but it’s something that I wanted to pursue, and, in the end, I think it will all fall into place.”

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was the Sports Editor of Trinity News for Michaelmas 2018. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.