Setanta Ó hAilpín receives his Community Award from GWS Giants CEO Richard Griffiths and Melissa Doyle from Channel Seven's Sunrise breakfast show.
Irish Aussie Rules star Setanta Ó hAilpín has committed himself to Australia and says he’s never been happier.
The former Carlton player recently signed a new one-year contract with the GWS Giants in western Sydney, which will see him through the 2013 season.
His coach, Kevin Sheedy, has earmarked him as a key player for GWS next year and praised his passion for the game.
He was also recently honoured with a community award by the club for his mentoring work off the field.
The avalanche of good news marks the end of a difficult period for the 29-year-old who was delisted by Carlton at the end of 2011 and then suffered a potentially career-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in his first AFL game for GWS, against Carlton, in May.
Speaking exclusively to the Irish Echo, Setanta said he was looking forward to getting back on the field.
“After last year’s disappointment, I’m just keen to have a good pre-season and making an impact next year,” he said.
“I am 26 weeks into my ACL rehab so I’m happy with the way everything is progressing. The club staff are very pleased with my recovery so it’s all good.”
The GWS move came at the perfect time for the Corkman, who was not suited by the pressure cooker atmosphere of footy in Melbourne.
“I couldn’t be happier [at GWS],” he said.
“A fresh start was what I needed. In Melbourne, footy is big business and you can get caught up in it. In Sydney, it’s much more laid back. Football is not on your mind 24/7.”
Despite the setbacks of 2011 and his delisting by Carlton, Ó hAilpín said he has never considered returning to Ireland.
“It never entered my mind [to go back],” he said.
The two-metre giant has committed himself to staying in Australia.
“When I finish football, I won’t be going home anyway. I really love Australia. It’s given me a lot. I see this place as my home now. It’s a great place. One day, I’d like to get married and have kids and I’d like to raise a family here. Especially with the recession back home the way it’s going.”
His injury in May forced him off the field but allowed him to explore other club roles.
In particular, he worked as an outreach ambassador for GWS, working with disadvantaged groups, visiting hospitals and country towns to both promote the club and the game.
His work resulted in him being honoured by the club. He was recently given the inaugural Lend Lease GIANT Footprint Community Award for 2012.
The award is dedicated to the player who has made an outstanding contribution to the local Greater Western Sydney and ACT Communities and was presented by Giants number one ticket holder Melissa Doyle at the Kevin Sheedy Medal dinner.
Giants Chief Operating Officer Richard Griffith said that Ó hAilpín was an outstanding character and a deserving recipient of the inaugural community award.
“Setanta demonstrated a commitment to the community over and above what would normally be expected at an AFL club,” Griffith said.
“Clearly it was a frustrating year given his long term ACL injury but his character shone through.
“His willingness to travel around the state and accept any request that the club may have asked of him was always met. He’s a fine citizen and an excellent ambassador for both the club and the AFL,” he said.
Setanta said he was deeply honoured to get the award and it has inspired him to look beyond his playing days to a pastoral role within footy.
“When I finish football I would like to continue to work with the Giants maybe in the welfare area. Coming from my background, having left home as a young man to come to a new culture, I think I can help younger players who might be coming here to play football.”
He added: “They have no family, they have to begin again and create new friendships. That’s what I’m about, trying to help as many people as I can here.”
Ó hAilpín meets the Minister for Sport and Multicultural Affairs, Kate Lundy, at the GWS home ground, Skoda Stadium earlier this year.
He received more plaudits last week when legendary coach Kevin Sheedy described him as “one of the most passionate people I’ve met in AFL”.
“His passion is brilliant, you can’t beat it,” Sheedy said of the Irishman, who he has earmarked as fulfilling the role left by rugby league convert Israel Folau who decided to leave the club and the game last month.
Setanta said the experience of becoming a professional sportsman is something he would recommend to young GAA players in Ireland.
“Any young kid in Ireland, if they get the opportunity to play professional sport, they should grab it with both hands.
“You can learn so much and even if you don’t make it, you can always go home and bring what you’ve learned with you and that could help the GAA.”
While his GAA days are behind him, Setanta said he’s feeling right at home in Sydney’s west where, ironically, he was born.
“Yes, I was born in Bankstown General Hospital and grew up in Greenacre.”
“Last year, I went back to where I grew up and found the house where we lived. I was just four when we left so I don’t remember much of it but coming back here is like my life coming full circle,” he said.