Kennelly defends AFL recruitment of young Irish stars

Sydney Swans coach Tadhg Kennelly says he understands the frustration of some GAA fans who see talented young players abandon Ireland for a crack at Aussie Rules.

But the popular Kerryman defends the pathway as a great opportunity to play professional sport.

Two years ago Kennelly was criticised in the Irish media by his former Kerry team-mate Tomás Ó Sé for his part in taking top prospects away from GAA in his role then as AFL Talent Coordinator.

“I see both sides of the argument,” the now 38-year-old said in a revealing interview with the Irish Echo.

“I understand if I was a young man at home in Kerry and I’m watching Mark O’Connor go and play for Geelong.

“I wouldn’t be happy. It would be tough to watch because that’s what you bleed at home, you bleed Kerry football and you don’t want to see your best talent going.

“But I also see the other side of the argument. He’s a young man getting an opportunity to play professional football, getting to challenge himself in a game he knows nothing about and an opportunity to put it up against people in a game that you don’t know. I understand both sides of the argument. Which one’s right? Who knows?”

Kennelly is in a unique position of having reached the pinnacle of both games: in 2005 with the Sydney Swans and in 2009 with Kerry.

“I’ve been able to live both of them, going back to play football at home and getting to play as a professional here with the Swans,” he said.

“It’s a tough one and I see both sides of the argument. But I also understand there’s been close to 70 Irish players that have come out here. There’s only a handful of us who have played over 150 games of AFL football, the majority go back.

“That’s the first thing I say to players or anyone who talks to me about coming out here. It’s f**king hard and it’s a hard thing to do because you’re playing a game you knew nothing about, you haven’t been able to grow up with it, you don’t understand it and it’s tough. The majority of players go back and they go back better Gaelic footballers because they have lived in an environment of being a professional for a couple of years.”

In 2009, Tadhg Kennelly became the first irishman to win both an AFL Premiership and an All Ireland Championship.

In 2009, Tadhg Kennelly became the first irishman to win both an AFL Premiership and an All Ireland Championship.

Kennelly is also a veteran of International Rules, having played in six series. While he is a fan of the concept, he is not confident that the hybrid code can find a way forward.

“It’s difficult, it’s hard and I understand the demands on both codes as far as the GAA and AFL are concerned,” he said.

“There’s a lot going on, a lot on their plates. It’s hard to get momentum up because it’s a year, two years between games and it’s hard to get the momentum going.

“I’m a huge fan of it, it’s an opporunity for you to represent your country which both codes don’t get and you talk to any player who’s played in it, they absolutely love the experience and love playing for their country. I hope it does continue because it’s an opportunity to represent your country.”

Having spent his entire AFL career at the Sydney Swans, Kennelly returned to Sydney Cricket Ground two years ago and is now defensive coach.

He is also a member of the club’s Hall Of Fame having played 197 games for the ‘bloods’ becoming the first Irishman to win an AFL premiership in 2005.

In the extensive interview, Kennelly also revealed that if Kerry had not won the 2009 Championship, he may have stayed on in Ireland.