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'I Felt We Were In A Bad Place In Mayo And I Was Concerned About Leaving Really'

'I Felt We Were In A Bad Place In Mayo And I Was Concerned About Leaving Really'
Maurice Brosnan
By Maurice Brosnan
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It's all about the mind. The intangible element that differentiates elite level competitors from amateurs. More often than not, brain beats brawn. There are numerous nuances around professional sport that can be difficult for those on the outside to comprehend, none more so than the mental agility that allows expert athletes anticipate, process and understand all it takes to perform on a big stage.

It’s the main thing, the one true thing, that is shared across men and women's sport. A precise level of understanding. "They all think and learn the same,” explains Sarah Rowe, of her experience in the professional set-up at AFL Collingwood.

"They don’t differentiate. It’s four teams in one. Us, the AFL lads, the VFL, and the netballers. There were men’s coaches coming to our sessions and our matches, they’d want to see what we do differently and vice versa. We’d look at what they do and what we can bring to our game.

“Then the netballers might come in and say, ‘you could work on your footwork’ and that really helps. It was one united club.

“I don’t know if I would have loved Australia as a country if I went over on a working visa, but going into that team environment, I loved that. I loved all I was learning from the set-up, driving the high performance and chasing high standards. That environment was for me.”

Sarah Rowe

It’s a sense of belonging and a culture that Rowe hopes to see replicated in her native county.

It would be brilliant for the Mayo men and us, if we could integrate more.

We could train in the same place. Obviously, we have a new gym for the Mayo ladies which is a step in the right direction. I think our game Sunday against Cork, there is a signing period after the match with the men and women on the pitch. That has probably never happened before.

It helps everyone. I think Peter (Leahy) and James Horan have a few conversations and try to interlink things, but that is really only happening over the last year. There definitely will be more.

A shared mentality, it’s something that will always be common to both codes. The same can't be said for the abuse.


Last week a controversy arose in Australia when a picture of Aussie Rules footballer Tayla Harris in action attracted swaths of abusive comments. The photo was initially deleted, but after widespread support within and outside the county, Australia's Channel 7 reshared the photo.

A horrendous but regular part of the game. With more attention now on women's sport, it's only going to get worse.

"There were just awful comments. It goes on all the time. With men now and football in Ireland or whatever sport it is, lads get even more abuse. It probably hasn’t come into the women’s game as much because it is not as high-profile, but it is coming. As it gets bigger in Australia, that’ll come more into the game."



Attitude is important to Rowe. It’s something that she places increasing importance on after her AFL experience, a standard that must be maintained at all costs: "Your values. How you hold yourself as a person. Character is just as important as performance. Make sure you are a good person, do things right on and off the pitch.

"That was big in Australia, a club and a team have values.”

On Thursday, she boarded a plane to end her six-month stint playing AFL in Melbourne. Jetlag conspired to delay sleep until the early hours. On Friday she got up and pointed the car towards Mayo for county training that night ahead of their league clash with Cork this weekend.


“No breaks here,” she exclaims with a grin.


It’s been a superbly successful period in the burgeoning AFL women’s game for the Collingwood rookie. Rowe grew to become a crucial component of their starting side, so much so that she now must weigh up whether she will return for another season next year.

Her rapid ascent is all the more remarkable given the initial trepidation that took hold prior to the move.

I think I had a small bit of fear that I wouldn’t be fit enough, I wouldn’t be strong enough. Before I went over, I had trained so hard to put myself in a good position to control everything I possibly could. I knew I had so much to learn in terms of my game knowledge and skills, so so I zoned in on physical areas before I went over. In terms of the step up, I was just really eager to learn.

I learned a lot from the environment and even just being inside the gym. I remember I was amazed looking around the gym, people working from 9-6 and I was thinking ‘what are they doing for all that time?’ They are in there organising for you as an athlete to be better and for our team. It is a business as well as a sport, that is pressure to perform when there is money involved. It's not a massive factor but those small things do make you feel a bit under pressure.

On top of that, there was also what she was leaving behind. It was a controversial year for the county with prolonged drama haunting what was ultimately a disappointing season. Despite her age, she felt there was an onus on her to assume some responsibility.

That devotion to the cause is obvious. It's something that she still considers now, as she weighs up whether or not she will return to Collingwood.

To be honest, I was kind of reluctant to leave. I felt we were in a bad place in Mayo and I was concerned about leaving really. It's just the season didn’t go the way we wanted it to last year, obviously.

I was becoming more of a senior player in that year and then... look I suppose it was a good opportunity for me and I wanted to challenge myself in a different way.

I’ve played Gaelic football and soccer for years. This was something completely new. Then I left to start something completely from scratch, at a high standard. I had to be really switched on there. Now, I think it was good for me. I came back refreshed and I’ve a different outlook on team environments and leadership.

The physical stress of no break in over a year is not a concern. Mentally, that's a different story. Rowe has been in weekly contact with manager Peter Leahy and is anxious to get back involved. Ideally, she confesses, she'd take a break. But lingering in the back of her mind is the fact that she's missed out on the early block of training.

It's been since months since she touched a Gaelic football and it'll take time to get skills back up to scratch.

"I suppose there is a bit of a fear. You want to just get back into it..."

Even when Sarah Rowe is not training, she's training. The fact that it's been non-stop for over a year is no concern. That sort of load is standard. What is required, she openly admits, is a mental break. There's a two-week gap after the league and before championship preparation that'll be gratefully received for that reason.

sarah rowe

Even then, she won't be able to totally switch off. There is a big decision to be made. Due to her rookie contract and the AFL Women's expansion, Rowe has to declare whether or not she will return by the end of April. It's doesn't allow for a lot of time and there is much to weigh up.

They think the same, the men and women of Mayo. It's been 16 years since they lifted the Brendan Martin Cup, not quite the same as the Sam Maguire famine but long enough that Rowe has never had the pleasure and a dream that takes precedence over all else.

Thanks to the success of this year's Irish crop and as the league continues to evolve, with four new teams in 2020 and an increasing number of two-year contracts, the demands placed on Irish players will only expand.

"It pulls at your heartstrings. My dream is to win an All-Ireland for Mayo. I mean, I do... I love it out there. I love the professionalism of it all but another part of me says I couldn’t do it if I can't play for Mayo.

"There is always that part of you as a sportsperson that wants to play professionally at the highest level. But then there's that special thing, that loyalty that just will never leave you."

"I'll chat to my family, chat to Mayo and make a decision then."

Busy days ahead, for the mind and for the body.

SEE ALSO: 'Give Them An Extra Chance' - A Total Overhaul To The League Structure



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