Sunday will be a historic day for one Irish Banshee as Cavan woman Laura Corrigan Duryea is expected to debut for Melbourne football club in their opening round women’s AFL game against Brisbane Lions. She has big boots to fill having been given the same number 11 jumper worn with such pride by Melbourne hero and Irishman Jim Stynes. But Laura herself has many of Jim’s attributes and will be a fine representative of the Melbourne footy club.
Interest in the new women’s competition has already reach unprecedented heights as the opening game between Collingwood and Carlton on Friday night say 24,500 fans turnout with several thousand more locked out as the ground was at capacity. Watch all the women’s games live and free at this link watchafl.afl.com.au. All at ARFLI wish Laura the best of luck for Sunday’s game and the season ahead.
For more detail on Laura selection read the article below that appeared recently in the Irish Times
Laura Corrigan’s story, or at least its beginning, is a familiar one.
Like many footballing backpackers she reached for the obvious touchstone when she landed in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda’s nine years ago. The Cavan midfielder, who had already taught PE in Dublin and was the winner of two Ulster intermediate medals, only planned to stay a year Down Under yet immediately joined the local GAA club.
Today she’s still living the dream: newly-wed (her married name is Duryea) and living in Mornington Peninsula, an hour south of Melbourne in wine country, just a block away from the beach and a world away from her native village of Milford, near Belturbet.
So far, so Irish Down Under reality TV script.
The unique part of her story is that she’s about to become part of Australian sporting history.
The inaugural “professional” women’s Australian Football League (AFLW) kicks off in February and Corrigan is the only Irish player involved.
She’s playing for football giants Melbourne, who have even allocated her the 11 jersey, a treasured number locally thanks to the club’s deceased Irish legend Jim Stynes.
Almost six feet tall, Corrigan quickly took to the local game, helped, she admits, by her natural physicality which sometimes got her in trouble when she played for Drumlane and Erne Gaels.
“I got a few yellow cards in my day. Growing up in a village full of boys didn’t help because I originally played the boys’ rules. When I was coming out here everyone said ‘oh you’ll have to play that Aussie Rules, it’s a game that’s made for you!’”
She’d actually picked up a six-month ban before she left for “a bit of an altercation with a referee” after taking umbrage at his addition of 11 minutes of added time in a county semi-final.
“I’d booked to go away anyway but you know what the rumours would be like: ‘Ah she’s going to Australia because she was banned!’” she adds with a chuckle.
“I played Gaelic here initially and then met a girl who suggested I’d be good at Aussie Rules. At that stage I thought I was only going to be here for a year so I thought ‘Stuff the Gaelic, I can play that when I go home.’”
Corrigan started in footie with the University of Melbourne but then joined premier Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL) side Diamond Creek and has played in seven Australian Grand Finals to date, one of which the team won.
She has also played for the Irish Banshees, a representative team who play in women’s footie’s international tournaments.
She has returned to GAA (with Melbourne club Sinn Féin) in the past two years and there have been Sundays where she has played both codes for her two clubs, which are 40 minutes apart.
But right now she’s immersed in the nascent professional women’s Australian Football League (AFL) against pretty big odds.
Clubs scouted the existing state leagues but also set up academies to recruit and fast-track elite athletes from other sports.
Corrigan, who turned 33 in December, was listed in the official draft last November but while 14 of her Diamond team-mates were picked, she wasn’t.
Yet every franchise had three “free picks” during the subsequent free agency period so she got on the phone and started calling clubs.
Melbourne’s head of women’s operations, Debbie Lee, against whom Corrigan had played, liked her skills and chutzpah and forwarded her tapes onto their coach, Mick Stinear. Within 24 hours they had signed her as defensive cover.
“It was amazing! I got the call in the car on the way to work and thought: ‘What? I have to go and teach now?’” she recalls.
Club rosters are 27 strong, with only 22 players selected each week for the 16-a-side games. Corrigan’s priority now is making those game-day panels and Melbourne’s historic opener is at home to Brisbane Lions on February 5th.
“The women’s AFL wasn’t meant to happen until 2020 but the growth in the game is so huge they brought it forward,” she explains.
Of Australia’s registered club footie players 27 per cent (380,041) are now women and 354 new teams were established last year, a jump of 19 per cent. The 2016 televised women’s Allstar game drew an average audience of 746,000.
The inaugural season (February-March) involves just eight clubs with seven games each and the top two to a straight Grand Final.
To maximise audience potential, the women’s Australian Football League (AFLW) has been timed to fill the vacuum after the Australian Open tennis and T20 cricket. That means live TV coverage but playing in the white heat of summer.
Pay rates have also been questioned.
Average AFL salaries are $300,000 but the initial base pay for the women’s admittedly shortened and part-time league was just $5000, which improved marginally after a “#bootsoff” social media campaign – so-called because female players don’t automatically get free boots.
Players such as Corrigan will now get the base-rate of $8,500 (€6,000) with a reported $25,000 (€17,600) for marquee players. This is tied to a contract maximum of nine hours a-week collective training but doesn’t account for players’ additional voluntary training.
Pre-season and training camps coincided with Corrigan’s summer holidays and she has taken a year’s leave from her primary school job in the city with the hope of picking up some substitute teaching locally when the league finishes.
Melbourne’s women share gym facilities with the club’s male stars and will play their home games in Casey Fields, home to the club’s second men’s Victorian Football League team.
“I never imagined anything like this would happen,” she says.
“I always tried out for the state team and played a bit of country ‘metro’ and representative footie here, but I never thought I’d make it to this. With the timing and my age I really thought I’d missed the boat. You pinch yourself some days, it’s unreal!”