Brisbane Lions star winger Orla O'Dwyer. (Picture: AFL; Design: Will Cuckson)

Craig Starcevich has been an essential part of building Brisbane’s culture and identity in its AFLW program after taking the reins as head coach back in 2017.

Headlined by the premiership win in 2021, his coaching tenure seen the young women at the club develop through his coaching. Irish star winger Orla O’Dwyer is just one of many examples, crediting him to her meteoric rise in the game.

Coming out to Australia to try and make it in the AFLW, O’Dwyer made the courageous decision to take a punt on a club in a city that she knew nothing about.

Being born in Sydney but living in Ireland, she was seeking a life where she could play sport professionally without needing a full-time job to juggle alongside training and games.

After being approached by numerous clubs, it was Brisbane that O’Dwyer had chosen in part, due to the connection she felt immediately with her now coach in Starcevich. Into her third season in the competition, she has been a massive find for the club with the winger enjoying the fruits of her gamble two years ago.

Speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, O’Dwyer explains the impact that Starcevich has had on the Lions program.

“He’s a great listener, which is great when coaches are like [that], [obviously] players have things to talk about [with them] but he’s [also] very wise and he knows what to say and when to say it,” she said.

“I think that everyone really trusts in him and that can be seen and portrayed across the team.”

Craig Starcevich celebrates the 2021 AFLW Premiership win over the Adelaide Crows at Adelaide Oval. (Picture: AFL Women’s)

She delves deeper into what about Starcevich makes him the ultimate coach, explaining the care and interest he has in his players as people outside of the football club.

“I get along with him very well and he treats every player the same, which is really good. It’s really important to form those relationships outside of just footy and he’s always expressed interest when I’ve gone home to Ireland in the off-season,” she said.

“[If] I’ve been playing camogie [or] Gaelic football [in Ireland], Craig would know the end result before my family would, he was always watching for Twitter updates. Even now when I go home he’s always keeping in contact and checking in on everyone.

“He recently went to Ireland in the off-season just gone, so he got to meet my family and friends. That was really special and showed [him] my part of life back home.”

O’Dwyer not only detailed the work that she put in, but the time that Starcevich contributed to seeing her football skills improve. Practising her kicking with the oval-shaped ball as well as helping her understand her role in the team, he has been through it all.

“I remember when I first came out here in October 2019, me and him used to do lots of extra sessions and lots of extra skills just trying to get me into a routine,” O’Dwyer explained.

“I don’t know how many balls he chased when I was trying to kick to him but he’s been great. He even he understands that [it will take time to improve], because he’s obviously seen Irish players coming over and play at different clubs and he’s seen how they’ve grown into the game.

“For me, he’s definitely been a big part of it, he’s listened when I’ve needed the help and I always felt that I could reach out to him. He’d do extra kicking with me along with all the other coaches as well, but he’s probably the main one along with some of my teammates.”

Since O’Dwyer’s arrival at the Lions a few seasons ago, the team has seen little change. With the retirements of club stalwarts in Emma Zielke and Lauren Arnell as well as Indy Tahau moving to Port Adelaide, the Lions have been not greatly impacted by AFLW expansion.

O’Dwyer sees this trend as a testament to their team culture and the trust and love the team has for each other.

“With the Brisbane Lions, we are very lucky that we’ve kept most of the team together since I’ve come out here since the 2020 season,” she said.

“It’s a pretty similar team, [so we’ve continued] developing those relationships over the last couple of years [which] has made the team stronger and more united as a team.

“A lot of those girls have helped me [during that time], whether it’s with extra sessions or kicking with me and being my partner and knowing that I won’t kick it straight but they can teach me as they go.”

The Brisbane Lions AFLW team celebrate the win against the Adelaide Crows in Round 8 of season seven. (Picture: AFL)

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In her first year at the Lions, O’Dwyer played a forward role, which was due to her limited knowledge of the game and her developing skills with the Sherrin.

Following that up in 2021, she enjoyed a break-out season, featuring in the premiership team in her new position on the wing.

Using the run and carry that the Irish recruits in the AFL and AFLW are synonymous for, O’Dwyer’s natural pace served her well, helping the Lions to become one of the most dangerous teams in terms of pure speed.

She speaks about the evolution of her game and how she is now relishing her role on the wing in her third season.

“In my first year I kind of played in the forwards [group] because it was similar to what I played back home, so I could get used to that,” O’Dwyer explained

“I think with more games and experience that I got, they could see that my running was one of my strongest points. I remember Craig just saying that eventually we would like to see you playing on the wing.

“It wasn’t until my second season actually by default I ended up on the wing, one of the girls ended up getting injured for a couple of weeks, so I got moved there.

“I was kind of thrown in the deep end, but I think you quickly learn as you go and when you make a mistake, you learn from it. With the Brisbane Lions we are all about run, and it’s all about bringing the team together and getting everyone involved.

“We are very lucky with our wingers that me, Sophie Conway and Jade Ellenger, we all have that [ability] to get up and down and we use the wing well and it’s great the way the team can pick us out and get involved. It’s definitely a learning curve, but I’ve been loving the wing the last two years.”

Despite experiencing a career break-out in season six (2022), O’Dwyer says the highlight of her AFLW career so far was the 2021 premiership. Beating the Adelaide Crows in front of the Crows faithful at Adelaide Oval, the team won their maiden AFLW flag.

When describing what that day in 2021 was like, it is obvious that the season six preliminary finals exit has further fuelled the Lions’ desire to push for a second premiership in season seven.

“It was amazing, I think it’s something I’ll always remember down at Adelaide Oval and just seeing the crowd,” O’Dwyer explained.

“I suppose in AFLW we haven’t seen huge crowds at games like that, and throughout the season you might get a good couple of crowds at games, but I’ll never forget that crowd that day. The crowd was just amazing, they were so loud [and] so vocal although it was probably filled with Adelaide fans.

“I think as a team we gelled so well that year, and we could see that we were getting better each game. It was such a great team performance that day against Adelaide.

“The celebrations that went along with it afterwards were just so memorable, that’s the position we want to be in. I don’t think it was until this year where we fell short at the MCG against Melbourne, where we missed out on a grand final, that we realised how special that time was in 2021.

“We really bottled that hurt and brought that into this pre-season, and I think hopefully this year we can get to a grand final again and win another premiership and kind of be on top like we were in 2021… that feeling definitely stays with you for a while and you appreciate those days.”

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