‘This opportunity is mad. It’ll be a great experience, a once-in-a-lifetime thing’

A RANDOM MESSAGE out of the blue is often the starting point for new and exciting opportunities in the world we live in today.

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Before Aisling McCarthy opened her phone that day, she probably didn’t know what CrossCoders was. 

She’s well aware now. 

It’s a global programme that allows top female athletes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a professional in the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW).

“Basically, a girl wrote to me and she just said that they started off this initiative,” the Tipperary footballer explains to The42.

“It was called CrossCoders, a global programme to try see who’d be interested and get players from not just Ireland — there’s girls from England, Canada, the USA, Fiji even.

“Just to see if anyone’s interested in seeing if their skills in their sport could translate over to the AFL. That you’d have the potential to be offered to play the sport.”

Scouting out her interest. And it was most definitely there.

“I was obviously intrigued,” she smiles. “Even just hearing from Cora (Staunton) being there.”

From there, there were questions traded back and forth and details exchanged along with video clips and the likes as her application took shape.

Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

It’s all pretty much a blur now, it happened so fast. Next thing, she got an email saying that she was invited to a week-long trial camp in Melbourne.

McCarthy is one of 11 Irish involved along with two Americans and other athletes from Wales, England, France, Canada and Fiji. 

Before embarking on the venture Down Under — the Irish group flew out on Thursday — McCarthy was ecstatic at the entire situation.

“Even when they wrote to me I was like, ‘This opportunity is mad!’ the 22-year-old continues. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

“I was like, ‘I actually can’t believe they’re flying people out for this.’ They obviously have a massive interest in players going over to play professionally. I couldn’t turn it down when I got the offer.

“It’s going to be a massive challenge. The calibre of players and sportspeople going is big so it’s going to be very competitive out there, I’ve no doubt about that. 

“It’s great that there’s so many Irish girls, ladies footballers especially. It just shows that ladies football is a high enough calibre of sport and (players are) at that level maybe of being a professional athlete.”

That’s the real pull: there’s a chance to secure a contract for the 2019 AFLW season, something Mayo duo Cora Staunton and Sarah Rowe have both done already. 

The Western Bulldogs will be offering one, or maybe more, rookie deals at the end of the camp which runs from 22-30 September. Other clubs will also be able to attend and scout the talent on offer accordingly.

Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

Of course, it’s down the line at this stage. There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes between now and then, but she can’t help but let her mind wander somewhat.

“I’m just really looking forward to the prospect of maybe getting the opportunity to play professionally,” she dreams for a moment.”It’s something that I think all sportspeople would like to experience.

“I just think that playing professionally, you’re going to be getting the best strength and conditioning possible, you’re going to be training day in, day out. You’re going to be in the best shape of your life really and it’s an area that sportspeople can really excel in with the set-up and things like that. 

“If the opportunity comes, you’d have to think about it a good bit with regards to contracts and things. It’s a big move obviously to the other side of the world.”

The ladies football and AFLW seasons compliment each other fairly well in that you can manage both, as many have spoken at length about. So if the dream did come true, she’d be delighted to come back and play for Tipperary next year.

She pulls herself back though: “But look, the camp next week is going to be tough, no doubt.

“There’s going to be a lot of fitness testing, strength testing, looking at our skills and game management, spacial awareness and things like that. I’ve no doubt it’ll be very competitive but I’m looking forward to that as well. It’ll be a great experience.

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“I haven’t much experience with playing AFL at all. I’ve touched the ball a few times now. Since I know I’m going I’ve been practicing a bit.”

Growing up in Cahir, McCarthy wasn’t exactly exposed to a whole pile of Aussie Rules. She mixed camogie with Gaelic football, focusing on the latter at inter-county level of late. 

She’s taken more of an interest recently. Understandably.

She’s kept an eye on the men’s game in Oz, however, since fellow Tipperary native Colin O’Riordan made the move to the Sydney Swans in 2015. She’d keep up to date on social media; watching clips, reading and following what she could.

“I suppose then when there was a lot of interest with Cora’s move, I would have seen more clips of the ladies,” she adds.

“I wouldn’t have been a major fan now of any specific club or anything like that. I just think it’s a very interesting game. It was more the men’s aspect just because of the links with Colin.”

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As she mentioned, she’s been playing around with the oval ball. Getting as many touches in as she could before boarding that plane.

“I’ve been practicing but the skills are quite different. The kicking and the tackling, I kind of was like, ‘Ah, how can it be that different?’ When you get the ball in your hand, it really is.

Congratulations to @colin_oriordan who becomes our 4th debutant for 2018!

And what a story Colin's is…🇮🇪https://t.co/SsVkGcLxJj pic.twitter.com/Ne1G171GQ8

— Sydney Swans (@sydneyswans) July 12, 2018

“It’s more of a punt-style kick. My kicking style in Gaelic football would be my around the corner hook kick. It’s more accurate in ladies football but in AFL, they say that the punt kick is a lot more accurate. My kicking style will definitely have to change!

“The handpass as well, you just handpass it with a different aspect of your fist, that’s something that you have to get used to. It’s going to be all little changes.

“There’s a big technical aspect to it as well. You’re going to have to be able to learn plays and things like that, which isn’t really brought into ladies football. Obviously there’s some tactics but it’s still kind of whatever happens, happens.”

Then there’s the physical side of the game.

“Dad was watching the Cora Staunton documentary and he was like, ‘This is frightening, I don’t think I want to let you go!,” the 2017 Intermediate Player of the Year laughs.

But she’s serious at the same time. She’s well aware of what lies ahead.

“The hits people were getting were just nuts. It was kind of scary, but look! There’s some really hard hits, that’s obviously going to be a massive difference. I’d like to think that I’m kind of a strong, physical player anyway so hopefully that might help.

“Look, it could be on another level there. It’s a totally new game, there’s going to be players that are playing this all their lives. You’ll be a small fish in a big pond really going over. But I’m really looking forward to it.”

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

There’s a nice personal touch to the whole trip too. McCarthy’s mother was born in Melbourne and she has relations over there so she’s excited for that element too.

She’s never been over to visit and she hasn’t seen them in years so that’s an ‘added bonus’, as she puts it. Likewise with the travelling group, she’s looking forward to getting to know them more after inter-county battle after battle on home soil.

And while there’ll be friendships made, there’ll be many more battles down under as they chase those coveted contracts.

She knows how it goes.

“The opportunity has come up so I’m just going to take it head on now,” she concludes. “It’s all happening quite fast but I’m looking forward to it so.

“I’ll take it in my stride anyway and see what happens!”

That she will.

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