Irish Watch: AFL Round One

After months of hard work and preparation, footy is back for the men in 2019 with 14 Irishmen hoping to make an impact for their respective clubs throughout the year.

In a round dominated by upsets, the first week of the AFL season would see five Irish players suit up around the country and take part in what was a riveting weekend of action.

Gracing the Friday night stage for the first time in 2019 would be Collingwood and Geelong, as these two finalists from 2018 hoped to get their seasons off to a flying start in front of a big crowd at the MCG.

Drafted by Geelong at the end of 2016, Mark O’Connor is on the cusp of a breakout season with the Cats after earning round one selection on the back of a solid pre-season.

In what was a hot and tightly contested game of footy, the young Irishman looked at home on the MCG, with his ability to shut down the Collingwood small forwards and generate attack from the defensive fifty particular highlights of his game

O’Connor would end up collecting 13 disposals and three marks, as the Cats managed to see off the reigning grand finalists and snatch a famous seven-point win.

After O’Connor tasted victory on Friday night, the luck of the Irish would continue as Conor Nash’s Hawks stunned the Adelaide Crows on their own home deck.

Led by the master tactician Alastair Clarkson, Hawthorn would grind the high scoring Crows to a halt at the Adelaide Oval, with pieces of coaching brilliance limiting their ability to move the ball.

In a performance highlighted by the influence of a number of unsung heroes, Nash would be central to the Hawks game plan, as he applied great pressure on the Crows defenders and was lively inside forward 50.

Hard around the contest and brutal with his tackling, Nash’s impact on the game was not truly reflected on the stats sheet as he only had 10 disposals to his name.

However, what Clarkson and the entire Hawks coaching panel would be focused on with Nash was the five tackles he applied, as he looked to knuckle down a role inside the fast and frenetic Hawthorn forward line.

He was pivotal in upsetting the flow of game-breakerssuch as Wayne Milera, Brodie Smith and Rory Laird and creating the pressure that ultimately won his side the match.

At the recently renamed Marvel Stadium, Irishman Darragh Joyce would be given an opportunity in the Saints defence as they took on the Gold Coast Suns.

Holding down a key position role in defence, Joyce was terrific from start to finish as he defended brilliantly to keep the Gold Coast forwards quiet whilst also contributing to the Saints movement out of the back half.

In what was a memorable afternoon, Joyce would play a key role for St Kilda picking up 18 disposals and three marks.

Not looking at all out of place, Joyce was efficient with his ball use and composed throughout the game as he contributed to some big moments in the dying stages of the match.

With the Saints holding on for a gripping one-point victory, Gold Coast veteran Pearce Hanley would see himself on the end of a heart-breaking defeat as he hopes to lead his young side up the ladder in 2019.

One of Ireland’s most established players, Hanley has proven himself to be an excitement machine throughout his career with the Suns and Brisbane Lions, with his run off half back and slick skills seeing him develop into one of the competitions more dangerous defenders.

With injuries plaguing his last two seasons, it was great to see the 30-year-old back out on the park as he claimed 13 disposals and four marks off the half-back line for the gallant Suns.

Showing flashes of his trademark dash, Hanley will have without a doubt benefited from the run as he hopes to build continuity back into his game and rediscover his best form as the season develops.

As a senior player in one of the more inexperienced sides in recent memory, Hanley has a large role to play this year as he looks to guide the young talent of the Suns and build the club up into a contender.

Wrapping up the weekend’s action from an Irish point of view would be dazzling Essendon halfback Connor McKenna as the Bombers travelled to Sydney’s Giants Stadium to take on GWS.

Never afraid to take the game on, the exciting Irishman is now entering his fifth season of AFL football and is looking primed to break out into a genuine star of the competition.

With such high hopes, round one would turn out to be a disaster for the Bombers as poor efforts across the board saw them slump to an embarrassing 72-point loss.

Struggling to generate any run out of their back half, McKenna, like the majority of his teammates, would have a day he’d rather forget as he only touched the ball 13 times and failed to really get himself going.

In saying that, he was efficient with the ball in hand going at 92% and showed excellent composure in the back half.

So, with one weekend done and dusted it is clear to see that the Irish influence on the AFL is set to rise in 2019 with more and more players being given opportunities at the highest level.

With 14 players currently on AFL lists, we are set for a year filled with highlights from our Irish players as they all hope to contribute to the success of their respective teams.

 

By Zac Standish.