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Ulster GAA stars showcasing their talent Down Under

By Declan Bogue

Sometime during the night, when you were blissfully snoozing the night away, Ireland were in action in the Australian Rules Football International Cup final.

It sounds a niche sport, and at that level it is. But their final against Papua New Guinea was played as a curtain-raiser for the Hawthorne v Geelong AFL clash at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the most storied and celebrated sporting venues of the world, prior to one of the most eagerly-anticipated clashes in the AFL.

And as for the opposition? Well, Papua New Guinea have been in all five finals since the International Cup began, their only triumph coming in 2005. Ireland have beaten them in the first year it was staged, in 2002, and 2011.

And just like back in 2002, there is a strong Ulster contingent driving the team. Back then, Michael Johnston was the captain after he had transferred his skills as a Gaelic footballer with Cargin, who won the Antrim Championship in 1999 and 2000.

But because of the manner of Cargin's Championship win in 2000 – with an ugly scrap in the final against St Paul's leading to their exclusion from the 2001 tournament – some of their key players turned to the oval ball.

They toyed about with a bit of rugby with Ballyclare Comrades, but when the Belfast Redbacks were formed – operating out of Cherryvale Playing Fields – they found their sport.

One year later, Michael and Dualta Johnston were on the first Ireland team to win the International Cup, played in Australia in 2002.

Now, the Cargin connection is still strong, with Ryan McCloskey, a strong contender for top goalscorer in this year's competition, playing alongside Brendan Kelly. Two Cargin exiles in David McElhone and Gerard Johnston were already based in Australia and have linked up with the squad.

The northern representation is completed by Brendan McDevitt and Kevin McSorley from Tyrone, and Derry's Sean Paul Henry.

It was through his chance involvement with the Cargin Erin's Own club that Tyrone man Paul Brogan first got involved in Aussie Rules football, and he is in Australia now as part of the coaching staff.

Originally from Gortin, he ended up playing for Cargin after he moved to college in Belfast. Some clubmen persuaded him to give things a go with the Belfast Redbacks and he found that his skills as a goalkeeper were easy to cross over.

In any case, he had always loved the game. Back in the mid-80s he was a pupil in Omagh Christian Brothers' School when Ireland played an exhibition hybrid game against the Aussies in Healy Park, and he can recall getting a half-day to watch it.

Ireland had Pat Spillane, Jack O'Shea and the young and precocious Dermot McNicholl. The Aussies had Dermott Brereton and Robert Di Pierdomenico.

And a casual attitude to ultra violence in the middle of a wet Omagh Wednesday. What teenage boy wouldn't be hooked by that heady concoction?

Between work and freeing up his time, it wasn't until 2012 until he managed to devote himself for a full season, and the Redbacks won the Irish Premiership in 2012.

The player-manager of Ireland is David Stynes, a family name that will require no introduction to anyone interested in AFL, and he requested that Brogan join the coaching staff for this trip.

He already had some experience having been part of the coaching team that guided Ireland to victory in the European Championship when they beat Great Britain in Dublin by a point.

After making the trip to the southern hemisphere, the campaign began on August 10, with a win over Fiji that looked comfortable on the scoreboard with Ireland winning 62-10, but was hard fought on the pitch, according to Brogan.

"Fiji from the off put in a very late hit into one of our players after five minutes, knocked him out and he had to be stretchered off. That guy got a red card. You wouldn't see that in the AFL but for this tournament they brought it in," he related.

"Then Brendan Kelly also took a knock and he was unconscious for a short period and he had to go off. They really got stuck into us and it took us a while to find our game, but we eventually did and won pretty comfortably."

Kelly recounts the moment he saw stars: "I was in corner-pocket for about eight minutes and I got knocked out.

"Me and another boy were running for the ball and the way they are set up, they are jumping with all elbows and knees. His elbow just caught me and that was it. I was out watching the rest."

Since that battle, Ireland were able to recuperate.

Staying in an apartment on St Kilda beach they have been able to jump into the icy Pacific waters for recovery sessions and while there, would notice various Aussie Rules clubs doing the same, such as the Gold Coast Suns one day and the North Melbourne Kangaroos another day.

They went through the obligatory selfies routine as the Aussies expressed a measure of bemusement that a load of lads from Ireland would fly all the way across the world to play in this tournament.

The boys who sustained concussions were brought to AFL house at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne and assessed by AFL doctors. Even hamstring pulls were given their full attention.

Since that first bruising encounter, Ireland went on to play their first-ever meeting with France, which is quite something given they are in the same continent, winning on the whopping scoreline of 111 to 2.

Next up was Nauru, a small island in the South Pacific, but with a population of 10,000 packed into eight square miles, with no less than eight football teams. Ireland had their toughest game to date, winning in the end 66 to 39.

The semi-final was played in midweek against South Africa, and although Ireland had some difficulties, the final scoreline of 53 to 28 did not reflect quite how comfortable they were.

One man who had to show a bit of grit was David Stynes, however.

The player-manager suffered a punctured lung during the game and played on. Somewhere in the everywhere, his brother Jim would have smiled at the bloody-mindedness and determination of it all.

Papua New Guinea made the final after they beat New Zealand in midweek – a team fancied to have gone far – 75 to 28. They have no fewer than five players on the AFL rookie list and there is a long tradition of players from PNG lighting up the AFL, such as all-time great Mal Michael.

With a playing population in their country of 20,000 they vastly dwarf the resources of the Irish, who can realistically estimate their own playing numbers at around 500. However, there is a game to be played around about the time of the printing of this paper.

When all of this is over, Brendan Kelly intends to remain in Australia. He already has plenty of feathers to his cap, with a degree in Environmental Science, as well as being a plumber by trade.

The last few weeks have brilliant for him as he has lived the life of a professional athlete, with training sessions, games, recovery sessions and all the medical care he could need – and has needed – laid on for him.

"We were at the Etihad, in with their physios," he said during the week.

"Those boys are top class and about for many years. It's something you don't get to do. It's different to going down to Ahoghill, or Aghagallon on a Wednesday night and the rain lashing down on you!"

We take his word for it.

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