Since her move to Brisbane in 2019, Tipperary’s Orla O’Dwyer has been one of the most successful Irish imports into the AFLW.
The former Tipperary dual star has been a crucial part of the Brisbane Lions midfield, leading them to a Premiership in 2021, before becoming the Irish women to win an All-Australian in 2022.
While O’Dwyer had another fantastic season in 2022, scoring two goals, making three assists and putting in an incredible 48 tackles, her Brisbane side fell short in the Grand Final to a Melbourne side containing Dublin’s Sinead Goldrick and Armagh’s Blaithain Mackin.
As the 24-year-old enjoys some time to rest ahead of the new season in August, O’Dwyer looked back on the moment she decided to make the move to Australia, with Cora Staunton’s success a big motive.
“The AFLW is pretty new, there has only been seven seasons it started in 2017, so there wasn’t really much visions or matches to watch. Cora Staunton was the first one over, and then you had the likes of Aisling McCarthy, who I played with at Tipperary, and Sarah Rowe and Ailish Considine.
“I always remember there was a documentary that Cora made that was shown back home that showed her first season with GWS. I remember watching it and I was fascinated by the facilities, by the team, by living in Australia, by the weather, and how she adapted to it.
“It probably came sooner than I expected in 2019. I was seeing little clips of how the other Irish girls were doing, and they were all getting games, which was huge, and they were doing well for all their clubs.
“Lucky enough a few clubs came back, and Brisbane liked what they saw, and I liked the idea of them. I knew if I did get the opportunity I would grab it with two hands and give it a go.”
Despite being a dual code player in Ireland, the Tipperary native admitted it took some time to get used to playing a new sport at the other side of the world.
New, unfamiliar surroundings, combined with the pressure of quickly adapting to a new sport with new teammates in a new lifestyle, the 24-year-old did have her concerns if she would succeed.
She also took on a new college course in Australia, going from a teaching degree in Limerick to studying Business in Brisbane. The adjustment to an active, more professional lifestyle was one of the main differences when arriving to her new adventure.
It was not until Brisbane’s 2021 Premiership success that O’Dwyer truly felt she was a key player in Brisbane, easing the pressure she had felt as a new addition to the side.
“With Australia itself, I think it’s just such an active lifestyle. When you get up at 6:00am, there is so many people up walking dogs, running around, and I think the weather helps them in that regard.
“Within the team itself, I found it very hard to getting used to asking lots of questions, messing up drills, asking what drill this is and things you take up so quickly back home from doing the same drills and playing since you were five or six years old.
“To be coming out here and messing up drills, it affected me mentally and made me realise how hard this game is. It took a lot of time and time is what made me settle.
“For the first few seasons I was here, I was so petrified at the end of every game that I was going to get dropped. I was thinking I didn’t do well enough, I didn’t touch the ball enough, I didn’t score enough goals, I didn’t do this for my teammate.
“I think it’s all a learning curve. The success I have had winning a Grand Final, it shows how far I have come.
While the amount of Irish players when O’Dwyer made the move may have been low in 2019, the numbers have certainly increased in the following years.
This coming season will see 32 players from Ireland line out in the AFLW, as more players from Ladies football seek the move Down Under. Dublin’s Jennifer Dunne will join O’Dwyer at Brisbane in August.
The Irish influence in teams is growing, with several players impressing last season, and with the success showing no signs of slowing down, it’s likely that number is set to continue.
“To hear familiar voices and familiar accents is always nice. We all know the pact we took to come here, we all gave up a lot back home to come and play here, so we can connect and that level and know what it has taken to get here.
“Seeing how well Irish players are doing over here, and I suppose competing against them for your counties and then seeing that they’re actually excelling in a different sport that you play as well, that’s what made me want to come over.
“But I think in recent years as well, AFLW is obviously professional, and you get paid to play it and GAA is still amateur. So I think the opportunity to actually play a sport professionally and get paid for it is every player’s dream.
“I think that kind of lifestyle would really suit a lot of players too. And even in the last year we’ve had, I think it’s a 94% pay increase with AFLW, and it’s getting a lot more exposure even here, but also back home and in other countries as well.
“And I think the AFL has done huge there with trying to really promote the women’s game and I think a lot of Irish people have seen opportunities for that to come over and play, whether they’re club players or if they’re county players.”