Irish eyes smiling with longing happiness!

It’s almost impossible to quantify the magnitude of what Meath undertook in 1968 when – as ‘outgoing’ All Ireland Champions – the headed for Australia. To be honest, not a whole lot is known about the expedition but – and if the following is incorrect please advise – what is known (I think!) is that Peter McDermott’s team embarked on a three week maritime voyage to get there.

What can be attested with absolute clarity is that the great Mick O’Brien of Walterstown was on that trip and brought back kangaroo tie pins for each student he was teaching in Kells at the time.

Thus were the seeds sown of the link between the GAA and the Australian Football League. Whether that was a good thing or not is a debate for a different day. This corner would have been very much in the affirmative and to be honest still is. However, the slight reservations which do now reside have nothing to do with the Australian Football League or, indeed, the hybrid games between the best footballers in the GAA and the best the AFL had to offer. Which were conceived out of a motion submitted to Congress by Meath official Pat O’Neill of the St Colmcille’s club.

The great Kevin Heffernan managed the first International Rules team

It will be admitted that one was slightly urinated off that Tadhg Kennelly was basically the instigator of the recruitment camps – or ‘combines’ as they were disguised in a half assed manner. Strip away the highly vaunted status his surname carries within Gaelic football and it was that very game that afforded him the opportunity to operate where he has since. Yet here he was, basically, pilfering the best upcoming talent in the game.

Not that an iota of grudge is held against any of the players who have gone over and did well at the other end of the world. Residual angst revolves around the GAA not doing enough to keep the best talents in our games at home. Yes, paying them.

Now, transplant your mind back in 1968. Imagine what it must have been like for family/friends/supporters of our All Ireland heroes. Chances are there was very little – if any – contact with the lads while they were Down Under. Let alone being able to watch them on TV every week.

Still, there I was parked up for the Saturday brunch watchlng our own Vikki Wall write the next chapter in her fairytale sporting adventures. Having succumbed to a narrow defeat in her AFLW debut with North Melbourne, our girl’s influence has been growing with every outing.

Vikki Wall’s influence on matches is growing

From being a slightly peripheral figure on her debut, the outstanding No. 13 registered her first goal in Week 2, then notched two six pointers in last week’s midweek game before drilling over an outstanding score on Wednesday last.

She was at it again in today’s match against Western Bulldogs. Registering another score, yes, but what struck this observer most was how pivotal Vikki has become to the Kangaroos overall gameplan.

With every outing, she has been demonstrably playing herself into matches. Drifting out the field, using the pace and strength which makes her such a superstar in our own game. It would be my guess that one of the first things that takes people aback about AFL is the size of the pitch.

In Ladies Football it would be no problem whatever for Vikki to drive scores over from 50 yards out the field or further. Contrast that with what might look like gathering possession in, say, a centre forward type position, but it could in fact be twice that distance from an AFLW goal.

So, this viewer – and most likely my fellow parishoner on the pitch – has taken a while to adjust to the dimensions of the field and how, to some extent, it dictates what style of play teams employ.

Against the Bulldogs, that meant Vikki roving out to what would basically be right half forward on a pitch here at home. Thereafter on one occasion powering forward and deftly laying off to a colleague for a potshot post splitter.

Later, in another demonstration of her growing confidence and aptitude at the new code by gathering a long ball from compatriot Erica O’Shea (Cork) before dropping the shoulder, giving the Magpies defender the slip and serving full forward Tahlia Randall with what we’d call a tap over in these parts.

To those of us who have grown acustomed to but are nonetheless awestruck by her brilliance, it was no surprise to observe that Vikki has already made the AFLW Team Of The Week. If, as it would be hoped, it turns out to be a case of the Dunboyne woman starting as she means to go on, the Aussies may get used to leaving a spot on the team for export every week!

Ballyboden, Dublin and Sydney Swans legend Jim Stynes (1966-2012)

Perhaps it was fate, though, that this would be the week Vikki really announced herself to the wider sporting world. Grand Final week. Like All Ireland Final week here only a hundred times bigger and better. In fact, it’s what All Ireland Final week could and should be like.

To anybody that has ever heard the words Australian Football League and Ireland together, methinks it would be a fairly safe wager that ‘Jim Stynes’ would be the next two utterances to emerge. Actually, in researching for what you are reading, it was discovered that Jim and I shared birthdays, April 23rd, the earth being blessed with his inspirational presence in 1966.

Jim Stynes was part of the Dublin Minor football team which won the All Ireland in 1984. As were my good friend Sean Barry and future senior star Paul Clarke and it must have been on foot of his exploits that the Sydney Swans came calling and lured the Irish giant to the bottom of the world.

However impressive he must have been in the two shades of blue for Sydney to have taken a punt on recruiting him, they or nobody else could ever have foreseen that it would have ended up being the poignant success story it absolutely was.

For not only did the sandy-haired star go on to carve out a stellar career for himself with the Melbourne Demons, he was also the recipient of the Brownlow Medal in 1991. It being the most prestigious accolade AFL – or possibly all of Australian sport – has to offer.

You can be sure, too, that Jim was among the driving forces behind the increased courting of the best talent in Gaelic football to the oval ball. Tadhg Kennelly being the first one to jet off in the late 1990s. If Jimmy was among those who scouted the son of ‘The Horse’ – God rest him – he certainly was as good with the eye as he was with the boot.

The preciously talented foal went on to emulate the former Dublin midfielder in being part of the Swans team which annexed a Grand Final victory in 2005 before – once his playing days had concluded – going on to retain his involvement in the AFL as outlined above.

Without wanting to seem bitter, it must be acknowledged that players like Conor Glass and Conor McKenna and Cillian McDaid have all made significant contributions to the fortunes of their counties upon their return to the GAA fold. Even if the middle-named of that triumvirate is unfortunately let his pocket do the talking and gone back to Australia.

Simonstown’s Conor Nash

Of course there have been other Irish players outside of Jim and Tadhg who have made their mark – no pun intended – in the MCG and the like. Among them Meath’s own Conor Nash (above) and Cian McBride who were more recently followed below by a plethora of the country’s best lady footballers. Among them Vikki and her All Ireland winning county colleague Orlagh Lally.

Prior to the weekend just about concluded as this is being typed, only the Listowel Emmets clubman had managed to reach the Promised Land of the oval ball code in being part of an ensemble that emerged from a Grand Final with the spoils of war.

Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor

But now there are threr. With Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor having played their parts as the Geelong Cats scored a resounding 133-52 victory over the Swans.

The Cats hadn’t just laid the foundations for victory, they had the brick laying done when, at the end of the first quarter, the black and white stripes were clear by 41-5.

So, more Irish sporting history made. Tuohy, who was very much cut from the same cloth as his club and county mate Colm Parkinson, rounded off his 11th season in the AFL in the best way possible.

For Dingle’s Mark O’Connor, reward has arrived much quicker, but, hope would that Portlaoise’s Tuohy would soldier on for another while yet. With the Grand Final victory having been garnered on the occasion of the No. 2’s 250th appearance for Geelong.

If all that wasn’t to take in, the former O’Moore County wing back is only 14 behind Jim’s record number of appearances by an Irish player in the AFL. One would have thought all things being equal he will surely match and surpass it.

All of that can wait for another day however. Between the ladies and gents accomplishments over the weekend just ending, plenty of Irish eyes will undoubtedly have been smiling.

Albeit maybe with a wry longing for what the overseas stars would add to our own games if they were about. Still, hopefully home really is where the heart is.

Edited 19:00 hrs 26/9/22

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