DON’T BE fooled by the slightness of her stature, for feisty local footballer, Ciara McGurk has strength in abundance and plans on taking the Aussie Rules World Cup by storm when she touches down in Sydney next month.
SIMON COLLINS reports
The hard-hitting sport, famed for it’s intensity and physicality, has recently experienced a sharp rise in popularity on these shores with the success of the International Rules Series and the strong links with the GAA, however, it isn’t just the men’s game which is flourishing outside of the southern hemisphere.
Indeed, Aussie Rules has become the latest sport to cross the gender divide in this country and the fact the Irish female squad were crowned European champions last September is a clear indication of the growing fondness for Australia’s national sport.
And the Steelstown Brian Og’s midfielder will attempt to contribute to that success when she swaps the round ball for the oval when travelling with the ‘Irish Banshees’ for the inaugural women’s International Cup in Sydney and Melbourne from August 11th to August 29th.
Ciara, the Ballyarnet club and the North West Regional College’s Gaelic “Players’ Player of the Year,” will be the city’s sole representative in the competition and she plans on making a significant impact when the girls make their International Cup bow against Canada on the opening day on August 15th.
Despite being a relative newcomer to a sport, Ciara believes this current crop of ‘Banshees’ have the potential to reach the Grand Final and return to Ireland as world champions.
Having been introduced to one of the fastest growing sports in the UK while playing for the Derry county panel in a challenge match with their Aussie Rules counterparts, Ciara was so taken by the game she decided to join the only female Aussie Rules team in N.Ireland - the Kilrea Kookaburras - leading to her international selection for the European Cup in Milan.
While the 20 year-old Creevagh Road native might not possess the physique normally associated with Aussie Rules players, she has no doubt her background in both GAA and rugby will serve her well.
As a member of City of Derry Rugby Club’s ladies panel, the sprightly winger believes her multi-disciplined background has provided her with the necessary skills to mix it with the best in the world.
The ‘Banshees’ will take on Aussie Rules teams from Canada, Papua New Guinea, USA and an Australian Indigenous and Multicultural team during the tournament and her experience in Gaelic Football and Rugby will certainly prove useful attributes.
“Not a lot of people even know that there is a ladies Aussie Rules team, we don’t get much publicity,” explained Ciara. “I’m the only player from Derry city involved but there’s a few other County Derry players in the team.
“There’s only 12 girls selected from Ireland travelling out to Australia and then there’s about eight girls already out there who are playing Aussie Rules that we’ll join up with.
“We’ll be a lot smaller and faster than the girls playing out there,” she continued. “At the start I was a bit apprehensive, but I started rugby to give me a bit of a more physical presence. However, it’s not intimidating playing against heavier, stronger girls because I’ve got speed and can get round them easy enough.
“My background in rugby helps too. I play with Stacey Lee Jackson who plays with Ireland and City of Derry and I always try and play against her in training to better my game and prepare me for facing stronger girls like I’ll face in Aussie Rules.
“We made history in Italy when we won the European Cup but the reality didn’t kick in until we got back. So apparently we’re the ones to beat in the International Cup. The Australian team will be more physical but if we get round that we’ll be okay.”
Ciara’s speed and height are two of her greatest attributes and her coach, Australian, Andrew Hickey - who played competitively in the Aussie Rules heartland of Victoria - was impressed with how quickly she adapted to the game.
“Ciara is a fantastic footballer for her club and her county as well,” said Hickey. “Because of her height she can be used changing in the middle and changing in the back line.
“The Kilrea Kookabars only started up this time last year,” he continued. “It was just a small idea. The first game was Kilrea versus the rest of Derry combination side. Ciara came in at that stage, she was one of the first girls.
“It’s mostly county footballers in the team so the level is quite high,” explained the Aussie. “It’s just about adapting to the Australian game but all the girls have very good ball skills.
“This is the first year we’ve had a national team. I think we’d be looking definitely to make the grand final. I think we have a very good chance.
“The teams like Papua New Guinea who have been playing for quite a few years will be very hard to beat and also the United States have had a national league for a few years so they will be hard to beat.
“However, we can compete with anyone, the girls have adapted very well to the game and we’ll have as good a chance as anyone really. All the girls who compete in the ‘Banshees’ play a very good level of rugby - we have four rugby players travelling.
“In Milan we were going into the unknown but we will be expecting the teams, especially from the southern hemisphere to be really strong, so it’ll be tougher but everyone is really looking forward to that. It lasts for three weeks and we’ll be taking it very seriously, really competing and trying to win.”
And Hickey is confident the sport will continue to grow in Ireland.
“We’d love to get another team outside of Kilrea in the Derry area,” he said. “We accommodate girls who don’t play any sort of ball sport, to girls who have a certain skill. There’s a position for everybody and everybody gets a game and it’s a cross community sport as well.”
One drawback to Ciara’s selection for the Irish team is that she could miss out on Steelstown’s first ever Co. Derry Senior B Championship Final, should the Ballyarnet ladies defeat Ardmore in today’s semi-final in Craigbane (Throw-in 7.30 p.m.).
With the final scheduled for mid-August, Ciara would miss the chance of claiming the ladies’ team first championship success since their formation.
“We’re in the semi-final of the county championship against Ardmore on Friday and I expect us to get through to the final which would be a great achievement,” said Ciara. “We beat Ardmore about a month ago and it was something like 16-6 to 0-01. So I’ll be gutted if we’re not in the final.
“This is the first year we’ve got this far and if we get to the final I’ll be away with the Irish ‘Banshees’ which is a shame but I think they’re trying to put it off for me because I’m representing the country, so fingers crossed.
“I have Steelstown to thank for getting into the Aussie Rules squad, they put me forward for county training and I progressed into Aussie Rules from that so I owe the club a lot.”
Ciara’s trip to Australia for the International Cup is a costly exercise estimated at E2,800 to E3,000 per team member and the A-Level student is on the look-out for fundraising ideas and sponsorship.
“Funding is important, we have to raise between E2,000 and E3,000 each so we’ve got a lot of work to do from now until we leave, “she concluded.