Rising up the ranks: Cara McCrossan’s AFL journey

Tyrone native Cara McCrossan lived in Australia for years before trying her hand at Australian Rules football, but it didn’t take long to catch the eye of scouts and now she is about to line out in the premier AFLW leagues. Niall Gartland writes…

IRISH men or women trying their hand at Australian Rules Football is nothing new at this stage, but it usually follows a familiar pattern.

Down the years players have been talent-spotted at combines held in Ireland, and in 2019 the AFLW hosted their first ladies combine in the country. That’s paved the way for a stream of talented gaelic footballers travelling across the world to try their hand at the sport, including Mayo legend Cora Staunton, who racked up 50 appearances before recently announcing her retirement.

This year, recent Ladies Footballers of the Year Niamh McLaughlin (Donegal) and Aimee Mackin (Armagh) will head Down Under in the coming months.

Among the new recruits is Tyrone native Cara McCrossan, drafted by Queensland-based Gold Coast Suns. Unlike the other aforementioned names, she’s already living in Australia and has done so since 2017, emigrating with her partner Callum McNamee. She does have a strong Gaelic Footballing background, however – she grew up playing Gaelic Football with the now defunct Dregish club before joining the ranks of Omagh St Enda’s. McCrossan also played for Tyrone before taking the plunge and moving to Australia, but it’s fair to say she didn’t go to bed at night dreaming about tearing it up in the AFLW.

Indeed, McCrossan was on the verge of returning home with Australia’s strict travel rules relaxed post-Covid, but the thought of trying her hand at a new sport nagged at her. It wasn’t a straightforward path to recruitment but she was eventually enlisted by Casey Demons in the amateur Victorian Women’s Football League and took to the sport like a duck to water. Now she’s set to take the big step up to the semi-professional AFLW and she’s looking forward to the opportunity.

Speaking last week, McCrossan explained that her time in Australia had originally intended to be a short stint: “I’ve been in Australia for more than six-and-half years now, it’s mad to think about. Callum and I decided to come out to Melbourne for a year and we’re still here.

“There’s so many Irish people here that it feels like home sometimes. The pay is obviously a lot better but the cost of living is quite high by comparison to. Time goes by that quickly and one year rolls into another and you soon realise how long you’ve been here.”

McCrossan has had to pick up sticks as a result of her draft recruitment by Gold Coast Suns, a 15-hour trip from Melbourne that took three days in total to complete. The season starts on the final weekend of May and will run into the winter period.

“It’ll be fully professional during the season whereas it was completely amateur at Casey Demons. It’s a little similar to Gaelic in the sense that the Victorian league is made up of reserve teams in Melbourne. I was still working full-time when I was with Casey. In the AFLW it’s not as full-time as the men’s game, there’s a bit of flexibility, but in terms of the set-up it’s fully professional and you have everything you need.”

McCrossan had a hectic schedule as a youngster and eventually found herself burnt out by the demands of Gaelic Football.

“I’d been part of the Tyrone senior team for three years by the time I came out to Australia when I was 22. I’d been playing pretty much constantly since underage level. I was playing loads between club, county and college. I thought I’d take a one-year break. The pressure got to me a bit. I wanted a bit of a break but ended up playing Gaelic in Australia regardless.”

The Covid-period wasn’t straightforward for McCrossan as travelling back home was off the table. Psychologically, the fact it was barred was as difficult as being geographically separated.

“I went home last year, it was the first time since Covid. It was an insane period really. It was brilliant to eventually get back home. It was the fact you weren’t allowed that was particularly difficult. You’re only a day away from home but there was nothing you could do about it, it was taken away from you, so that was pretty tough. My parents have been out here and know what life is like for me out here so that makes it easier.”

Indeed, Australia’s been something of a home away from home anyway due to the large Irish diaspora. That’s one of the reasons why it never really entered her head to embark on a completely different sport.

“There’s something about us Irish, we always stick together. The company I work with was Irish, you hang out with Irish people and play Gaelic Football. We talked about moving home and I thought ‘you know what, I’ll give the AFL a go’. I just wanted to see how I got on at amateur level, getting drafted has been a bonus.”

It wasn’t a matter of rocking up to a club and saying ‘where’s the dotted line?’. An AFL-playing friend got her in touch with a skills coach so she could start acclimatising to playing with an Oval Ball. She was subsequently rejected by the VFLW club affiliated with that particular coach. She applied for a different club but once again found herself rejected.

CASEY COMRADES….Cara McCrossan, right, celebrating with a teammate while playing with Casey Demons last year

At that point it would’ve been easy to give up the ghost and she applied for the one club whose deadline for application hadn’t yet expired, Casey Demons. She was promptly offered a contract after a trial and never looked back, having a brilliant 2022 season for the club, playing 15 games en route to a preliminary final.

She caught the eye of officials from Gold Coast Suns and has made their supplementary draft, but says she is still in a process of adaptation.

“I’m still adjusting to be honest. It’s difficult but when you put in the time you start to get a feel for it, I suppose it’s a bit like Gaelic in that respect. You have to put in the practice but I’m still getting used to the rules more so than anything else. That’s a bit like Gaelic as well as they tend to change the rules every year so, I’m still getting used to the old ones!”

McCrossan is set to join the club with two other Irishwomen, namely former St Kilda’s footballer Ciara Fitzpatrick and reigning Ladies Footballer of the Year, Donegal’s Niamh McLaughlin. There’s been an explosion of Irish natives linking in with the sport, which itself is growing from strength to strength.

“The AFLW is getting huge now. When I first came out to Australia I think it was in its second year and it wasn’t that big but now it’s getting crazy. Everyone knows and chats about it. The advertising of it has improved and it’s on the TV a lot. Last year some of the games were played as curtain-raisers to big AFL games as well. They have a five-year plan, they want to eventually go fully professional and they’re definitely going in the right direction.”

McCrossan, who’s position in the sport is roughly aligned with the half-forward role in Gaelic Football, is hoping that first and foremost she can nail down a starting spot on the team. But come what may, she’ll be back home in Ireland at some stage.

“That’s my first goal, to make the team for the first round and try to make my spot. That’s all I can really hope for.

“Further down the line I’ll definitely be coming home but I’m just taking it as it comes. With the way the draft works you only get a one-year contract so we’ll see how the year goes and take it from there.”

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