“The big moment … was when Colin O’Riordan left Tipperary to go play at the Sydney Swans when he was 18.”
Aisling McCarthy, a native of County Tipperary and a star of Gaelic Football, says her interest in Aussie Rules began in that moment.
“When I got to see some of the clubs and play a bit of the game, that’s when I thought, you know what, if the opportunity comes up to play, I really do want to.”
Currently back home in Ireland following the abrupt end of the 2020 AFL Women’s season, where she plays with the Eagles, McCarthy is now training with her Gaelic Football team, Tipperary.
Growing up in the town of Cahir, McCarthy’s passion and interest for sports and competition began early.
“I was a bit of a tomboy when I was younger and I just played and put my hand up to everything really,” she said.
“I started with the local boys’ soccer club, and then when I was seven, my parents took me down to the local GAA club where I played football and [stick and bat team sort] camogie … so my passion from sport grew from there.
“As the years went by, I got more serious with things and probably turned my hand specifically to Gaelic Football and Camogie, playing underage and then making county teams with Tipperary.”
A snowball effect of Irish players being picked up by the AFL Women’s competiton started when a legend of Gaelic football was signed on for the 2018 AFLW season.
“The big thing with AFLW would be when Cora Staunton went over in her first year, there was definitely a lot of media following her, seeing how she’d get on as a ladies footballer, crossing from Gaelic football to Aussie Rules.
“That’s probably where the interest sparked, but I never really envisaged myself playing it, I didn’t know if that opportunity was ever going to come up. But thankfully, the CrossCoders came my way.”
CrossCoders is an AFLW developmental program that started up in 2018, focusing on finding and developing overseas talent. McCarthy was one of the first players signed by the AFLW through the program and since then, Irish players have steadily found themselves playing in the sweltering southern summer.
Jason Hill is one of the co-founders of CrossCoders and from the outset, he knew McCarthy was destined for big things.
“Aisling was someone we had our eye on from the start. There were people I knew in Ireland from my time running AFL England and I used them to get an understanding of who some of the best Irish sportswomen were,” he said.
“I’ve said this to her multiple times, I believe the sky is the limit for Aisling. People talk about her being the best Irish or CrossCode athlete, but I honestly believe she can become the best player in the AFLW.”
McCarthy’s introduction to the organisation came when she received a message from them through Instagram. She thought nothing of it at the time.
“I left it there for a couple of days, I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t know whether it was a scam or what at the time,” she said.
“Then I said it to my parents, and they said it was no harm in responding to it, and then the process started going from there.”
CrossCoders invited her to Melbourne to come try out in the week leading up to the 2018 Grand Final – a week that led her to believe she really wanted to play the game of Aussie Rules.
“That was a brilliant week to be out in Melbourne. I was just really immersed in the AFL world the minute we stepped in,” she said.
She returned to Ireland hopeful she had done enough to be recruited by an AFLW team. She had to wait almost a month – October 23 – to have her name called out.
In Ireland, of course, it was the middle of the night.
“I obviously knew I wasn’t going to be pick one or anything, so I was kind of zoning in and out of it … It was hard staying awake,” she said.
It was around 3am and I was picked up at No.23. So I ran straight into my parents and told them that I got picked and going to Australia.
“I always knew there was probably a likelihood, but obviously there was a likelihood that I wasn’t going to get picked … I was a bit shocked.”
Being drafted meant McCarthy had to rush to get everything sorted. In her first year at the Western Bulldogs, she found living in Melbourne a bit of a struggle at times.
“It’s not the same as bringing an Australian girl into their team. There’s a lot of work and probably added costs as well to bring an international player across,” she said.
“They (the Bulldogs) did everything they could … even this year, every time something new came up, they did their best to resolve anything or help me with anything that I needed.”
McCarthy knew that she wanted to be in the Bulldogs’ starting 21 come round one. To her devastation, she missed out, but only marginally.
It kind of felt like my whole world fell apart because the only reason I was in Australia was to play AFL. I didn’t really take it too well,” she said.
“After a day or two, I got over it, I got announced as an emergency, got to travel with the girls to Adelaide.
“I got to see how everything was run, between warm-up and the meetings before the game. I think it was actually a blessing in disguise to gradually get into the team.”
An important phone call
The following weekend, McCarthy got a call from head coach Paul Groves, but was expecting to get the bad news that she had missed out on being selected again.
“I was dreading that phone call,” she said.
“I answer it and he’s chatting away very casually and then he said he had the good news that I was going to be making my debut. It was brilliant.”
McCarthy kicked a goal on debut against Geelong and from there, her form grew week by week. She played every game for the Dogs from then on – an Irish star in Australia was evolving before our very eyes.
At the end of the 2020 AFLW season, McCarthy sought a trade from the Western Bulldogs to the West Coast Eagles. It was a decision that she didn’t take lightly.
But her career outside of footy – physiotherapy – played a role in her leaving.
“Something I found that was very important to me when I was at home is my physiotherapy career, which I’m currently working on while I’m here in Ireland,” she said.
“[The Eagles] offered that … I thought that was really important to me, because the last two six-month stints I’ve had in Melbourne, I haven’t done any physio and I’m not allowed work because my visa restrictions.”
In terms of on field, McCarthy is hoping to continue to work on the foundations that the Eagles have set in their debut season this year as well as working on, in McCarthy’s own words: “Being a better version of me.”