Brisbane Lions premiership star Orla O'Dwyer (Picture: Brisbane Lions AFLW, Design by Will Cuckson)

Since arriving at the Brisbane Lions as a rookie selection in 2019, Irish recruit Orla O’Dwyer has stunned teammates and spectators alike. Coming to the league so she could be paid to play sport professionally, she’s become a star of the competition.

With many Irishwomen making the move from Gaelic football before her, Tipperary’s own star, O’Dwyer was convinced to take a chance on Australian Rules Football. The Ladies’ Gaelic Football and Camogie player followed their lead back to her country of birth.

Orla O’Dwyer spoke exclusively to The Inner Sanctum about her journey back to Australia as well as the highs and lows of crossing codes.

“I think for me, just seeing a couple of the Irish girls who went out the year or two before [me], the likes of Cora Staunton, Sarah Rowe and Aishling McCarthy and how successful they were within their clubs [was the initial reason I chose AFLW],” O’Dwyer told The Inner Sanctum.

“[The other reason is that] back home playing Gaelic football you don’t get paid, so you kind of work full-time and training as well. For [me it was] that opportunity to get paid and play sport professionally [which] is kind of any athletes’ dream.

“I was born in Australia as well so having that citizenship to come over was definitely a big part of it and I knew that, so I decided to come out and give it a try so since then it’s kind of been a small bit of history but enjoyed it so far.”

Coming over from Ireland, O’Dwyer made a big gamble on the Lions despite never knowing that much about Brisbane, however after meeting two important figures she knew that it was the ‘right’ place to land.

“I didn’t really know that Brisbane existed, it was mainly that I knew of Sydney, Perth and Melbourne,” she admitted.

“I actually had some other offers from [AFLW] clubs elsewhere but I just decided on Brisbane. I suppose Craig [Starcevich] and Bre [Koenen] were very personable and I remember the interview I first had with them was Facetime on an iPhone.

“I thought that was really nice and they kind of went on about how they’d like to keep my skills and not change my ways of playing really and how they’d [integrate] that into the team. I think that kind of attracted me here and obviously [the] lovely weather, great lifestyle and it kind of reminds me a bit of home where it’s not very city like or very busy and I’m very happy with my decision since.”

Coming from a ‘very sporty family’ O’Dwyer always played sports as a child through to her code swap. She explained her journey from grassroots to the ‘Crosscoders’ program that brought her over the other side of the world.

“My parents both played GA which is kind of Gaelic football and then hurling as well, they are very popular and dominant sports in Ireland,” O’Dwyer explained.

“I think growing up I wasn’t naturally gifted at sport so I had to work hard and I was always very weak and not confident playing. I started out playing with the boys from maybe under eight [level] to under 12’s in GAA (Gaelic Football).

“It wasn’t until I moved into a girls team when I was about 12 [years-old] and upwards that I started to see that I was not as bad, I was a bit more confident and there was a good atmosphere around and since then I was involved in county teams playing Camogie and Gaelic Football and I always thought that that’s kind of where my path would go.

“I went into teaching then and I thought that would be a good career path to go [down] while also playing back home.

[It] turns out that I’d do a 360 degree turn and come play in Australia but I’ve just always loved sport, not just the training side of it but the endurance, the running, the nutrition and just that lifestyle is really good to me so I kind of knew I’d like to do that as a career if I got the opportunity.”

More Crossing Codes

    With the experience of playing elite sport in another country, O’Dwyer brought her trademark pace and long kicking to the Lions. Along with the strengths she brought, it is important to consider what deficiencies that she had.

    Considering she was playing a sport that was brand new to her, it’s not surprising that she said at times making mistakes ‘took a toll on her mentally’.

    “There are a lot of similarities between Gaelic Football and AFLW, particularly the running styles,” she said.

    “I know the girls here harp on about how much the Irish girls keep running and have a long kick as well so that’s naturally part of our game, we are [also] trained probably [to] end up playing more game time back home, [as] we do two thirty minute halves with no interchange or breaks so it’s probably a lot more running and the same size field.

    “I suppose marking a ball and also that run off the shoulder passing is pretty similar as well as kicking but I think as well the hardest challenges for me coming in were mentally.

    “I was coming from playing sport at a high level back home and kind of being a household name and being a bigger player on my team and being a leader, to coming in and being at the bottom of a pack, not only in a new sport but a new team, in a new country.

    “I suppose I had to learn as I went on and I made lots of mistake and probably still do. I remember I was messing up drills because I couldn’t kick right and I didn’t know the set-ups and where to go, it mentally took a toll on me for the first couple of years, the team were very good to help me out there.

    From the free-flowing nature of Gaelic Football, the AFLW offered something that O’Dwyer thrived on, physicality. She described what she learnt about her wing role and how she dealt with the physicality that Aussie Rules is built on.

    “I love the contestedness of [Aussie Rules Football],” she said.

    “I love the kind of lead up to games, especially playing AFLW I think I know my role a lot better now so being an established kind of wing position [player is great for me]. I think my first year I kind of played in the forwards [and] half forward and probably didn’t get on the footy as much as I would have liked whereas I suppose the last few seasons I kind of found my place a bit better.

    “I think my teammates trust me more now and trust that I won’t just play on straightaway or kind of make some mistakes like I have in the past but I love that side of it. I think in more recent times I’ve been more into the contact and the physicality side of the game, back home it’s obviously a non-contact sport so getting tackled and being tackled is a new concept that I’m still learning.

    “It is something that I can improve on and being able to tackle people and get into those positions that you can get your ball back and impact the team is something I love about it and obviously running around and being with my teammates each week is great.”

    After only a few years in the competition, O’Dwyer had a stellar season in Season Six where she improved out of sight earning her, her first All-Australian selection. She reflected on that very special achievement and what it meant to her in terms of her development in the league.

    “It definitely was a surreal experience and I think the last couple of years I’ve just been playing with instinct and going off what I’d naturally do and luckily enough that came out really well and I got a lot of the footy,” O’Dwyer said.

    “In Season Six, as I said my teammates trusted me, I got a few goals and that helps too but it’s definitely a surreal moment and I think I’m only appreciating now what it actually means.

    “I think being around AFL and the men’s [competition I know] how much it means to get an All-Australian, [it] is obviously a great accolade.”

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