Irish trio impressing club recruiters at NAB AFL Academy’s US camp

CILLIAN McDaid was doing his homework when a strange number flashed up on his phone. He didn’t answer the call, and instead let it go through to his message bank.

When he rang it back a little later but didn’t get an answer, the 18-year-old Irishman figured it was probably a wrong number and got back to his studies.

About to go to bed that night, McDaid got a text message from former Sydney Swans and Gaelic star Tadhg Kennelly, asking him to test at the Dublin Combine in December last year.

“The first thing I did was run upstairs and tell my parents I had got a text from Tadhg because I couldn’t believe it,” McDaid told this week. “I was absolutely delighted.”

McDaid performed well over the weekend of testing and the 18-year-old was then invited to travel to Florida to train with the NAB AFL Academy on its camp at the IMG Academy.

The quick 183cm Galway player was one of three AFL hopefuls from Ireland to join the aspiring draftees on the tour last week, working alongside Darragh Joyce and Ray Connellan in front of scouts from 11 clubs. Each of the clubs interviewed all three internationals, and each has different stories to tell.

McDaid was the youngest, and used YouTube demonstration videos to practice his skills before arriving in the US. At first he found it tough to stop himself from kicking around the corner – as is customary in the Gaelic game – but gradually became more natural kicking off the middle of his feet.

He doesn’t finish school until June, and will play local football and hurling in the meantime, but is attracted to the idea of an AFL career because of its full-time nature – a glimpse of which he was given on the Academy’s camp, which is designed to reflect the running of an elite club.

“It was daunting to start with from a skills perspective, but just being in a professional environment is something I’ve never really experienced. At home we did camps for maybe one day, but being in a bubble for a week was brilliant,” he said.

“You’re not really able to be a professional in my sport back home so to get the chance would be great. That’s the lure.

“If I go home now and don’t pursue this then I’ll have a day job and go to college and try to squeeze in football in the evenings and on the weekends. But if you’re a professional then you can give it a right good go.”

As well as the ball handling skills, there were other differences McDaid noticed between himself and the Australian contingent of the squad. For one, they were (mostly) all strong swimmers.

“There’s a pool in Ireland, but you just mess about in there, you don’t do laps,” he said, adding another thing. “They’re all quite tanned, compared to us three who are all quite white.”

Joyce was more familiar with the game before landing in Florida and joining the Academy squad, who are all vying for selection at this year’s NAB AFL Draft.

The 18-year-old was flown out to Australia last year and tested at the draft combine at Etihad Stadium in October. He visited Essendon, St Kilda and the Sydney Swans alongside fellow Irishman Colin O’Riordan, who was then signed by the Swans as an international rookie.

The feedback from clubs was that Joyce was perhaps a little too young to be ready for the significant move to Australia, but having been back to Ireland, gone to college and kept in contact with O’Riordan, he is more sure this time that it’s what he’s after.

“Now it’s settled into my head that I want to do it and I’m treating this camp as a bit of a pre-season,” Joyce said.

At 21, Ray Connellan was the “big brother” of the trio and the speedy 188cm prospect from Westmeath saw it as his best opportunity to impress. Connellan was a part of Ireland’s squad that beat Australia in the International Rules Series last year, and has always wanted to pursue a career in the AFL.

“There’s no young guy growing up who doesn’t want to be a pro,” he said. “That’s why this week has been unbelievable with the Academy – you wake up, eat, train, eat, sleep and do it all over again.”

Connellan showed his zip and intensity during drills at the IMG Academy, and has previously run a 2.78-second 20-metre sprint, which gives him an elite trait that clubs are searching for. (That time would place him equal second in combine history behind Joel Wilkinson’s 2.75-second run in 2010.)

Across the week, the Irish players sat in on all of coach Brenton Sanderson’s presentations and team meetings and with every day, Connellan understood more and more of the terminology.

Every night after the doing the group pilates session, the Irish trio went out to one of the IMG Academy fields and spent half an hour kicking the footy back and forth to become more accustomed to its shape and variances.

Connellan has taken a Sherrin home and hopes an AFL club will come knocking. If not, he might go to them.

“A lot of the recruiters have asked me if I’d be willing to move over to Australia to finish my degree and play some lower league football,” Connellan said.

“If I’m going to invest my time I may as well do it properly and do everything I can to get to the top level. At 21 this might be my last shot at it so I’d be pretty keen to do anything to make it happen.”

Originally posted by Callum Twomey on