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13th Sep 2023

Irish infusion turns AFL team inside out on way to this weekend’s Grand final

Niall McIntyre

He’s a long way from Na Piarsaigh now.

Jetting off to Dubai last year, with a hurl in the hand and a teaching job in the bag, former Limerick and Na Piarsaigh player Thomas Grimes could hardly have imagined that his journey would take him to an AFL final in Victoria.

Never mind that he hadn’t played the game before, he hadn’t thought about it too much either.

But after a switch from the U.A.E to Australia, and after spells of hurling with the Dubai Celts in the desert and Michael Cusack’s in Oz, a chance meeting in a gym in Victoria, where Thomas and his girlfriend are doing some regional teaching, lead to a conversation about ‘footie.’

It’s opened a whole new world.

Now, along with 21 other Irish men, including Kilkenny hurler Ciaran Wallace and Kerins O’Rahillys centre back Karl Mullins, it’s led to this weekend’s Grand final against Bright.

It’s not senior, Grimes would compare it to junior or intermediate hurling.

But it is enjoyable, and as growing swathes of young Irish people descend on Australia, sportspeople, workaholics, social butterflies and whatever else, whether you’re into GAA, soccer or rugby, joining the local footie club is something Grimes would recommend to anyone.

The Benalla All Blacks AFL team

In a small city called Benalla, in the north-eastern region of Victoria, they’re after building some team.

Most of the Irish out there are working on the solar farm in a nearby town-land but having come together at the local AFL club, they’re after completely transforming the fortunes of the Benalla All Blacks.

“We came in after round seven,” Grimes tells us.

“They were bottom of the table and struggling and it wasn’t looking too good. They couldn’t field for their round five game. But we’ve given them the numbers, won the semi-final last week and now we’re in the final this weekend.”

“I went down (the first day) and couldn’t believe the amount of Irish that were there, and the atmosphere that was there,” he tells us.

“We were only delighted to have something to do.

“But I’ll tell you, it is difficult enough with that oval ball.

“Maybe our skills aren’t the most crisp. But it’s been said to us by the Aussies that our team spirit and determination has blown them away.”

Indeed, the direct running of the Irish players has been something the Aussie teams have struggled with, and as a rival coach indicated to the Benalla team manager earlier this year, their team spirit is plain for all to see.

“As much as last week hurt,” the Bonnie Doon coach said in a message after the game, “we also spoke after the game about how your boys celebrated every spoil, tackle, kick, mark what ever may it have been, they were infectious for each other in building belief.”

While the skills may have took a while on the field, Grimes says that, off it, it all flowed nicely from the very start.

“It’s similar to the GAA in many ways,” he says.

“The club have their own song, pantherland, so after every game, everyone gathers in around and there’s a big sing-song.

“It’s that kind of an atmosphere. You wouldn’t be celebrating every game back home like that in the GAA, but they see every game as a bit of a celebration.”

Grimes credits the Aussies for welcoming them in with open arms, and admits that, when they arranged a good luck video for the Irish players, with contributions from their parents and siblings, the whole thing just felt right.

It’s this kind of team spirit that has one of their players, Aaron Horan from Passage West in Cork, flying out from Sydney for their games.

“We train two nights a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, it’s largely skill-based.

“There’s been 22 Irish players since the start of the year. The last day, in the semi-final, 12 of the 18 starters were Irish and six were Australian.

“We probably struggled with the physicality at the start. Taking tackles and so on.

But they’re motoring nicely now.

“We’re basing a lot of our style on counter-attacking football, dispossessing the ball and then going in waves with support runners. Other teams like to pick off passes and working it down the field. They’re not used to the game we’re playing.

At the back of his mind, Grimes still thinks about hurling. He won an All-Ireland under-21 in 2017, as a starting wing back on the Limerick team that included Cian Lynch, Aaron Gillane and Tom Morrissey.

He was called into John Kiely’s senior panel the following year, but was unlucky enough to be let-go just before the deluge of success that has followed over the last few years.

But he still follows the team closely and after another spate of travelling with his girlfriend Emma, he’s looking forward to getting back in with the Na Piarsaigh panel next year.

“You’re missing the hurling at home too.

“But it’s something different, you’re probably expanding your skill-set too in terms of how you think about sport. It’s something I wanted to do since I came over so now that I’ve got the chance, I’m delighted to see what it’s like.”

“It’s insane to think Limerick after winning what we’re winning. There was probably a feeling that we knew something was coming, the team we had, between schools and the academy.

“But it is unbelievable. Nine or ten lads made it from our under-21 team that beat Kilkenny in 2017.

“So I probably won’t get called back while I’m playing the footie,” he laughs.

But it’s not a bad thing to be at in the mean-time.

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