Yesterday was the seventh annual AFL Draft combine in Ireland. Originally launched by former AFL star and Kerry All-Ireland winner Tadhg Kennelly, the event is an opportunity for young Irish athletes to secure a professional contract in Australia.
The combine is a series of tests carried out over two days in front of AFL scouts as well as former AFL and Gaelic football stars Colm Begley and Marty Clarke.
Friday and Saturday saw an impressive showing from the young prospects. Dubliner James Madden smashed the all-time 20m record with 2.68 seconds while his minor team-mate Peadar Byrne recorded a 2.92-second finish.
The opportunity for a professional contract is an enticing one for Gaelic footballers. Last year the AFL's new collective bargaining agreement increased the average wage from $309,000 to $371,000. A standard AFL rookie can earn close to $75,000. The chance to play a sport professionally in an exciting country is an attractive one, with recent Carlton recruit Cillian McDaid of Galway just the latest to make the move.
AFL Media man Ryan Davidson was at yesterday's event. Writing on the AFL website, Davidson reports that the onlooking recruiters were extremely impressed with the athleticism and height of the potential prospects.
Speaking to Balls.ie, Davidson expanded on this, singling out Cork's Mark Keane for praise:
Mark Keane, he was unbelievable today. I work with recruiters back home, if I was going to pick anyone today I would be putting him on the plane to America [to an Academy] next month but I wouldn't be surprised if he got picked up before that.
For a bloke that hasn't done any footie before, his kicking was really good, took a couple of strong marks, had poise, he was really good.
Co-ordinating the event were former AFL players and Gaelic footballers Marty Clarke and Colm Begley. Irish recruits have endured mixed fortunes when making the transition, with only 21 of the 63 Irishmen who made the transition from the Gaelic game to Australian football going on to play an AFL match.
A combination of homesickness and unfamiliarity with the game can prove to be difficult obstacles to overcome.
It is rare for a rookie to make a break-through in their initial year, usually playing out their first season in the VFL. Last year, however, saw former Derry minor captain Conor Glass make the breakthrough with the Hawks while Kerry's Mark O'Connor did the same with Geelong.
— Hawthorn FC (@HawthornFC) October 7, 2017
Glass is joined at Hawthorn by Meath's Conor Nash. Hawk's recruiting manager Mark McKenzie recently talked up the prospect of recruiting Irish players, due to the similarities in the game.
Marty Clarke successfully made the transition, playing 73 games for the Magpies. When speaking to the AFL Website, Clarke said standards are increasing because of a new approach:
The testing was first class and some of the ball use in that match situation was very good. There were some really good taller lads who were very mobile, and in some ways in the Jimmy Stynes mould. There has been a shift in (recruiting focus) by getting big and mobile guys.
Among yesterdays try-outs were Galway's Jack Canning, cousin of Joe as well as Anton Tohill, son of Anthony.
— Ryan Davidson (@ryandavo_) December 1, 2017
An AFL club cannot sign a player until they are 18. So it will take some time before offers, if any, are forthcoming. But with the increasing standards and a ready pool of tall, athletic players open to the idea of a professional contract and familiar with a ball game Ireland could prove to be an even more enticing scouting pool for AFL clubs.
You can read Ryan Davidson's report of the combine here.