Irish eyes were smiling on Saturday night as County Tipperary product, Aisling McCarthy made her debut for the Western Bulldogs in the AFLW.
McCarthy, whose first game came just a week after Yvonne Bonner at Greater Western Sydney, made an immediate impact by kicking an agile and opportunistic goal against Geelong.
The Dogs were far too good for the fledgling Cats outfit, having put the game largely beyond reach by half-time on the back of four goals to one. Despite obvious excitement over the win from the 22-year-old, she played down her goal that wrest back momentum from Geelong in the 3rd quarter.
“It was really good to get my first win down. I was a bit lucky too with the goal; I didn’t realise we’d gotten a free, so when the ball fell to me it was just instinct to kick for goal when I was in front of it. Right time, right place.”
Having arrived in Australia to begin her footy journey in September, McCarthy had her heart set on lining up in the red, white and blue for their first clash of the year against Adelaide, only to fall just short onto the emergency list.
“I was obviously disappointed to miss out on playing in Round 1," she said.
“I had a great opportunity to travel with the team, so I took that all on board. Then to get the call during the week that I’d be in for Round 2 was great; the girls really talked up what the home crowds are like – that lived up to expectations.”
A healthy crowd it was too, with almost 9,000 spectators on hand to both celebrate the 2018 premiership win over the Brisbane Lions and to get a glimpse of the 2019 version as they leapt to second in Conference A.
“The unfurling of the flag was a great occasion, first home game [since the premiership] as well and I think we put down a mark for what we want to do for the year ahead.”
Given how hungry Aisling was for a Round 1 berth, it’s only natural to expect she’d like to cement her place in the lineup of a team who are equally hungry to go back-to-back; the reality of life as a cross coder hasn’t been forgotten.
“Obviously I’ll go week-by-week; I have a lot of things to work on. I’m new to the sport, so I won’t get too far ahead of myself.
“I’ll sit down with the coaches during the week, I just hope I’ve done enough to stay in the team, but it’s a really competitive environment – they won last year and there’s a good lot of those players still there.
“Fingers crossed, but I’m just open to feedback to keep improving and developing.”
While still learning the finer points of the Australian game, McCarthy is able to identify areas where she could excel in her chosen pathway, thanks to her history in Gaelic sports.
“The kicking is a little bit different, but I do bring a bit of that...I’m really competitive too, and strong around the ball.
“The tackling rules are a bit different, but I think my drive to win the football is something that can transfer too.
“I’ll be working on different things throughout the year & I think I can only go up really.”
She won’t be working on them alone. McCarthy echoed comments from teammates about the strong and close-knit environment in Footscray; she highlighted several players who’ve helped her transition to a new life in a new hemisphere.
“Lauren Spark was a big person for me, she was involved in the process of getting me here. She was there from day one and I lived with her for the first two weeks.
“Off the field she’s been great; on the field too, she’s instrumental as a leader. I can always bounce questions off her.
“I suppose the two big ones, Ellie [Blackburn] and Katie [Brennan], they’re co-captains for a reason, they really get around all of the girls & make sure they’re inclusive. They were also great last week when I missed out: there to chat, they gave me some tips and this week they were advising me on my first game, mostly just to go out there and enjoy it.”
In coach Paul Groves’ view, McCarthy may be joined by many more of her compatriots in the league very soon. In the meantime, the handful of players already picked up by AFLW clubs have forged bonds and friendships away from the Emerald Isle.
“Yvonne has been great to communicate with, she came out with me in September and got picked up in the same way as I did.
“She’s hit the ground running – she’s going to be a real star. Cora [Staunton] has the experience of last year; she catches up with me and makes sure I’m alright.
“Having Sarah Rowe at Collingwood is great; we meet up every one or two weeks, to check in with each other and do things away from footy. It’s great to have that Irish connection as well.”
It took the men’s competition almost a hundred years to unearth its first Irish-origin star; in just three short years, the AFLW may have found its own five-leaf clover in Staunton, Bonner, Rowe and Adelaide’s Ailish Considine alongside McCarthy, with others not far behind. Surely this is a pot of gold worth celebrating.