Aussie Rules success - the westmeath connection

March 31, 2003
Castlepollard's Damien Cassidy guided the Irish team to victory in the inaugural Australian Rules International Cup in Melbourne last August. Rochfortbridge's Derek Mulligan and Alan Kelly from Mullingar were also part of the success. There was a strong Westmeath connection with the Irish team which upset the odds to win the inaugural Australian Rules International Cup in Melbourne last August. The team was managed by Damien Cassidy, who played his hurling with Castlepollard and football with Castletown-Finea/Coole/Whitehall up until recently. Cassidy, who was also part of the 30-strong squad, was joined by fellow Westmeath men Derek Mulligan and Alan Kelly. A member of the St. Mary's, Rochfortbridge club, Mulligan represented Westmeath in junior football a few years ago. Kelly, from Beechlawns, Mullingar, has more of a rugby background, but was once a talented underage footballer with St. Loman's. Given the close ties between the GAA and the AFL and the success of the International Rules series, it's hardly a surprise that many GAA players have taken a liking to Australian Rules football. There are now eight teams affiliated to the Australian Rules Football League of Ireland (ARFLI) and among them are the Mullingar-based Midland Tigers, whom Cassidy, Mulligan and Kelly play for. A county senior hurling championship medalist with Castlepollard in 1997, Cassidy was appointed as Ireland manager in succession to Roscommon's Dave Tierney, who was unable to continue in the role, at the beginning of last year. Under Tierney, Ireland had annexed the Atlantic Alliance Cup in London in 2001. In that tournament, Ireland beat Great Britain, USA, Canada and Denmark (twice) to establish themselves as the premier team in the Northern hemisphere. With the formation of new clubs and the number of new players at the established clubs, the net was thrown wider and Cassidy had a difficult task in picking the best 30 players for the trip to Australia. After weeks of trials, the squad was chosen and the inclusion of Mulligan and Kelly meant that there was a great deal of local interest in the event. The four-week trip cost EUR55,000 in all, EUR45,000 of which the players raised on their own bat. In the lead-up to the competition, the team received expert coaching from Darren Fitzpatrick, a former rookie with Western Bulldogs now based in Cork, and Paul Ryan, another Melbourne native who has enconsced himself in the Australian Rules scene in Ireland. On their arrival in Australia, the squad received useful advice from former Cavan minor footballer Nicholas Walsh who is striving to make it as a top Australian Rules player with Port Melbourne, and from Bernie Collins who has rejoined the Cork senior team this year following a spell with the Western Bulldogs. Ireland was one of 12 nations - not including Australia - to compete for the International Cup, being drawn in Pool B along with Canada, USA and South Africa. As the top ranking team in the Northern hemisphere, Ireland were favourites to emerge from the group and they didn't disappoint, winning all three of their games. In the opening game against Canada, Derek Mulligan made the 'mark' of the tournament, but then disaster struck when he suffered a double break of the ankle which forced him to miss the remainder of the competition. Alan Kelly had better fortune, though, and was a consistent scorer in Ireland's march to the knock-out stages. In the quarter-final, Ireland took out a very physical Samoa team and the odyssey continued when they beat a fancied New Zealand in the semi-final. An even bigger task awaited them in the final against tournament favourites Papua New Guinea, but they rose to the challenge magnificently to become the first holders of the International Cup. Similar to in New Zealand and Samoa, Australian Rules is one of the main sports played at schools level in Papua New Guinea and it was their first ever defeat in serious competition. "It was the perfect ending to what was a perfect competition for us," notes Cassidy. "No one would have given us any chance against either New Zealand or Papua New Guinea, but we were up to the task and it was great to come away with the trophy. All of our games were played in the Melbourne area with the final itself being played in the world-famous MCG as a curtain-raiser to an AFL game between Richmond and Carlton. "The final was televised on the Foxtel Footie Channel and I thought we gave an excellent account of ourselves. The whole trip was an unbelievable experience and the only thing that I could compare it to in my sporting career was winning the county hurling championship medal with Castlepollard in '97," he adds. Damien, who is a son of Fianna Fáil TD and sponsor of the Westmeath senior hurling championship Donie Cassidy, attributes the team's success to the skills the players acquired from playing Gaelic football. "The similarities between Gaelic football and Aussie Rules are unreal," he says. "The only major difference is the shape of the ball. We modelled our play on the running game that's associated with Gaelic football and it definitely paid dividends for us. Most of the other teams would have rugby backgrounds which meant that they were a lot more physical than us. But I think our style of play was more effective. "Most of our lads had Gaelic football backgrounds, but we had quite a few rugby players on board as well. Our team captain Michael Johnson played for the Antrim seniors and only retired last year to concentrate on Aussie Rules. Aaron Flood has been involved with Kildare, while Derek Mulligan played junior football with Westmeath." Some might see the surge in popularity of Australian Rules in Ireland as a threat to the GAA, but Cassidy insists this isn't the case. "I would regard myself as a GAA man first and foremost and there is no way that the ARFLI is a threat to the GAA. I wouldn't be involved in the sport if this was so. "The ARFLI is planned in such a way that it doesn't clash with GAA fixtures or training. In fact, a lot of GAA clubs are delighted with the league because it helps to keep their players fit over the winter months. Most of the games are actually played on GAA pitches. A lot of the lads who play Aussie Rules will tell you that it's the fun element that appeals to them most," he explains. The next competition for Cassidy and Ireland is the European Cup which will be contested later this year between Ireland, Denmark and Great Britain. Next year, Ireland will defend the Atlantic Alliance Cup and, in 2005, they will bid to retain the International Cup when it's expected that Australia will enter an amateur team. "We've a busy few years ahead of us and the fact that we've two titles to defend will make things more difficult for us. But there's a lot of talented players in Ireland and with clubs springing up all over the country, I think we can only get stronger," he concludes.

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