From GAA to AFLW: The women kicking their way to Australia – BBC

It's a cool night in the busy village of Camlough in County Armagh, where the green and white flags of Shane O'Neill's Gaelic Football Club adorn every lamp-post in sight.
Normally at a time like this, Blaithin Mackin would be right in the middle of the exciting build up with her two brothers preparing to battle it out in the Intermediate Championship Final later this month.
But she is far from home, waking up in Melbourne where she's taking on a whole new challenge of her own: semi-professional Australian Football League Women's (AFLW).
The 23-year-old is one of 22 Gaelic footballers to join the AFLW this year.
"It does feel like a dream sometimes," she told BBC News NI. "I can't believe that I am over here and playing a sport full time."
"I've learned a lot. At home you are working full-time hours so you didn't get as much time to focus on the off-field stuff, like your nutrition, your recovery.
"Now that I have the time to do that and recover well and get myself ready for the next training session, it definitely makes a big difference."
Our newest Demon has hit the ground running. 💥 #DemonSpirit pic.twitter.com/KnqZmMPo4q
Established in 2017, the AFLW aims to become a full-time professional sport by 2026 and as it grows toward that goal, the players salaries have grown too.
While still a fraction of the average salary in the men's game – which is over AUD$370,000 (£210,000) – AFLW salaries almost doubled for the 2022 season.
They will range from a minimum wage of AUD$39,184 (£22,235) to over AUD$70,000 (about £40,000) for top-tier players.
For Irish players coming from an amateur sport, the opportunity to earn while they play offers real opportunity to develop further as athletes.
"It allows you the freedom to focus on your sport, compared to home where you're rushing your dinner into you and rushing your lunch, rushing to training," Mackin, who signed with the Melbourne Demons, said.
"It would have been a hard one for me to say no to because I really wanted to come to this level and step myself up as an athlete and a player, see what impact I can have and really challenge myself in this sport."
The Irish women have a lot to offer in return.
While they may be less familiar with the oval ball and the finer points of the Australian game, they've been finessing the art of kicking from a very young age.
Unlike AFLW, Mackin said, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) structures have been in place for a long time with a strong under-age set up.
"The Australian girls are more skilled but we would have been playing from the age of five or six and we have a kicking background, which is quite appealing for AFLW.
"Obviously our sport at home has grown so much as well, and the players skill and strength levels are growing, too, which helps."
A star in her home county's football team, Mackin would only consider an AFLW contract if she could finish the season with them.
"Earlier this year when I started talking about it, when I was approached by AFLW Ireland, the first thing I said was that I wouldn't leave Armagh this year.
"I was already in the middle of a season with them and I had committed to it so that was the main thing for me. So I'm really grateful to Melbourne that they let me do that."
Before this year, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) and AFLW seasons had lined up perfectly, with the Gaelic season finishing just in time for players to fly to Australia for AFLW pre-season training.
But the AFLW season has been brought forward this year, causing an overlap between the two.
Some clubs will allow the Irish players to miss part of pre-season but others will not, which is one of many factors that could determine how many Gaelic players make the transition in future.
"It's a very personal decision," Mackin said. "It depends what you want, what stage in life you are at, your job at home. For some it wouldn't be worth it to come this far for this period of time."
The 2022 season runs from August to November.
"Some will want to stay on and travel or make Australia home, others will want to go back home to play for their county," she added.
But was the move from an amateur sport to semi professional a big jump in standards?
"Yes and no," Mackin said.
"The game at home has grown a lot so the standards Armagh would have set for us would be very similar and the amount of training sessions is probably fairly similar.
"Armagh has a great set up, we have a nutritionist, we have all the people in place and we always found time to fit in our strength work, our gym work."
In Australia, there's just more of everything, she added.
"More masseuses, more physios, more strength and conditioning people, more nutritionists. There's more people that are being paid to support you throughout."
In a few weeks time though Mackin will rise in the middle of the night to watch online her beloved Shane O'Neill's compete for a county title.
And while thankful for all the AFLW is offering her, her heart remains firmly in Armagh, where she intends to return next year for the 2023 Gaelic season.
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