Donegal star Niamh McLaughlin played her first game for AFLW team Gold Coast Suns last week as she embarks on her latest challenge. Michael McMullan sat down to see how she has settled into a new sport and lifestyle…
IT’S impossible not to be envious of Niamh McLaughlin. It’s early o’clock on Australia’s Gold Coast when she joins the Zoom call.
Slightly inland, on the shores of the Nerang River is the impressive sports village that houses the Suns’ teams and their Heritage Bank Stadium home patch. On the other side is Surfers’ Paradise where the clue is in the name.
For someone immersed in sport, this is heaven. Seated outdoors, looking into her screen, McLaughlin’s face is beaming ahead of another day living the dream.
The Derry in her accent is a false front. Schooled in Thornhill College in her mother Caroline’s native Maiden City, Niamh’s – and her sister Bláthnáid’s – sporting life have always been Donegal.
Father Davy, from Moville, took them to play football there and went on to manage his daughters for the county teams.
Adding in Niamh’s soccer stints with Sunderland and Newcastle soon paints a picture of an all-rounder.
As we speak, it’s Friday morning Aussie time. So far, she has settled in well to a game she had only watched from afar on TV. Training is going well, but Saturday’s opening warm-up game against Sydney Swans would be the real test.
McLaughlin was among six newcomers to play in a narrow defeat by the kick of a ball. A slow start was almost reeled in by a final quarter flourish. The ‘newbies’, as teammate Georgia Hayden referred to them as in a post-game interview, fitted in well.
The plan was to join the Suns after Donegal’s season finished up. She’d loved to have been running around Croke Park on Sunday, but the Dubs closed their season out in a quarter-final in Ballybofey.
McLaughlin had to shut the oval ball out until now. When the Aussie adventure finishes, she’ll be back home making herself available for Maxi Curran’s successor when Donegal’s Division Two promotion chase begins.
When you have a career broken up by three cruciate ligament injuries, there will always be a desire to play for as long and as much you can.
In the recent weeks jetlag was McLaughlin’s last obstacle before stepping into professional sport. Living with Down’s Clara Fitzpatrick and Tyrone’s Cara McCrossan – also both on the Suns’ roster – certainly helps the settling in process.
“The Gold Coast is funny in that it is probably one of the places you’d have heard of in Australia where I wouldn’t know people here,” she said.
“There are people in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, those sorts of places. It is nice to have them and to hear the Irish accent, to keep a bit from home.”
It’s a structured week as a professional, with the advantage of having time off to actually recover that the amateur game doesn’t afford.
No more struggles to sleep with the buzz of evening sessions or getting up at the break of dawn for the journey to work.
While an opportunity to work as a physio could’ve arisen, the accreditation needed to work in Australia would’ve been a box needing ticked.
“It would take too much time,” McLaughlin said. “I thought I would go and throw my hand at being a professional athlete and enjoy it as best I can and get the most out of playing football.”
Joining pre-season wasn’t a concern with her time with Donegal and the GPS software allowing her the opportunity to get the miles in the legs in her native sport without the concern of behind aerobically behind the rest when she landed in Oz.
It’s never an issue with the Irish coming out and speaks volumes of the levels an amateur sport can reach.
From a Donegal point of view, it says a lot about the county’s structures with the input of strength and conditioning coaches Sean Gallagher and Paul Fisher.
The senior players realised the levels of conditioning needed to compete at the top and it leaves the engines purring perfectly.
For McLaughlin, she also hopes her head for sport will be her friend. An ability to read the game.
On the other hand, it’s now about working on kick a different shaped ball. There are new skills to be acquired and the mark.
“In Gaelic football, you get the ball and go as fast as you can and keep moving. You don’t stand still whereas here they are a bit more measured when they catch it,” she said.
“That’s why they like the Irish, that’s why Cameron (Joyce), the coach, wanted me to help speed things up as well, up and down the pitch.”
Talking the ball off the shoulder. Giving and going. They come naturally from years of practice back in Ireland.
“Even in the last week or so, when I am on the pitch, you can see the patterns of play and coming from a Gaelic background helps with that as well,” McLaughlin added.
“I am enjoying it. There is a lot still to learn, but I am getting better every day hopefully.”
While a career in Ireland is a foundation, the sheer size of the AFL pitch is an eye-opener.
“I did get a shock,” McLaughlin admits. “I probably wasn’t aware how big the pitch was. It is obviously the oval. I was standing looking at it the other day.
“I made it one from one end to the other and they told me to keep running. It’s a good enough distance, longer than a football pitch.”
Most the Irish girls coming over play either in midfield or on the wing as a forward. For McLaughlin, her position is a “high defender”. Its somewhere between both stools.
“To come from deep and get up the pitch to give an extra option,” she said of her role. “What they want from me is to give that bit of help out in defence and try to build attacks from deep to get the ball up the pitch.”
With the warm-up games now slotted in ahead of September’s season opener away to Carlton, training sessions take in match preparation. Four versus two and three versus two scenarios, with a kick pass and support in a weave off the shoulder.
“I definitely enjoy the stuff on the bigger scale because you find you have a bit more freedom,” She added.
“I am probably not as upskilled on all the rules yet, the bigger game suits a bit more time to get back if you make a mistake or are caught out of position.
“With me playing football at home, I have that ability to read the game as well, not perfectly but it definitely helps and I found myself intercepting a few things or catching a ball.”
Cora Staunton’s move to the AFLW sparked the initial Irish interest. For Niamh McLaughin, the move of Donegal duo Yvonne Bonner and Katy Herron ‘Down Under’ added to her interest.
With that, came TG4’s coverage. Without fully knowing the inner workings, the game looked chaotic. Now in Australia, she tunes in a bit more.
“You can get it a bit more and you can see what it going on,” McLaughlin said, highlighting how – apart for the odd kickaround back home – had never played it.
Her teammates almost laugh at the fact someone can land in pastures news to play a brand-new sport.
“I suppose when you step back, it is a bit wild,” she accepts. “Someone said to me last night that I didn’t know all the rules.
“I am still learning them. They can’t believe I have never been to Australia, but I suppose you’d never come here for a holiday unless you are going for a good while because it is so far away.”
A short number of weeks in, is the challenge harder than first thought? McLaughlin thinks before honing in on her early experiences
“There are a lot to learn in skills and I have to get better at a lot of things,” he admits. “The tackle is the big thing. I wouldn’t be tall or big like some of the girls over here, so the tackle is obviously the big thing and being more aware of your surroundings because someone can pull you down from behind.
“It is about getting all those smarts as quick as possible to keep yourself out of trouble as much as possible.”
There is a familiarity with running patterns and getting into the right positions, something she sees as a strength from Gaelic football.
Cameron Joyce’s approach to coaching newcomers is a focus on not bombarding new information. It’s a case of a few pointers, see how things pan out and apply a steer when needed.
“It’s probably a good enough way to go because then you are playing with a wee bit more freedom and he can touch it up as he feels is most important,” McLaughlin said, pointing out the level of opposition analysis on tap.
“I was sitting in a meeting and they had all the stats for all the players. They are very stats driven. Ground balls. Handballs received. Kicking possession. Tackle count. I am still trying to come to terms with the terminology.
“At home (in football) the ball would be carried forward a few metres if there was somebody in the way or if there was back chat. Here, the ball is carried forward 50 metres which is mental. It that happened back home, there would be no chat to the referee.”
McLaughlin feels playing both soccer and Gaelic football is a help for what she is facing right now. She is a huge advocate of playing multiple sports and the learning from any transferrable skills on offer.
The tactical and technical aspects of soccer help read the opportune time to make a run, something she can tap into with the AFL.
“I haven’t had to come to Australia to play a different sport,” she laughs. “It is funny when you think about it and step back, I am going to the other side of the world to play a professional sport in a professional setup. It just shows how high the standard of the girls’ and men’s football is back home.”
The Australians can’t understand how the Gaelic sports aren’t professional, given the similar training loads to be fitted in alongside the working week.
“I am going to enjoy it as best as I can for the period that I am here, to take it all in and learn so I can take some of it back home,” she said, admitting the excitement of playing for a living.
The Suns have an open front coffee shop looking right across the training ground all the way to the stadium. Sitting at breakfast one morning, she had to take a reality check.
The multisport centre. Gym. Two massive sports halls kitted out for any as much basketball, football or volleyball as the eye can see.
It’s not bad and a reward for a lifetime of devotion to sport and the mental courage to come back from three cruciate ligament injuries.
The first two came at a young age. The knowledge gained from the first rehab helped the second. There was a pathway to follow.
The third, at the age of 23, was a tougher pill to swallow. A “Jesus, not again” moment when the demons in her head began to question the value in putting in the hard recovery yards.
There was anger. Would the effort really be worth it? It was. Not only is she a professional athlete on the other side it, but throw in her success with Donegal, culminating in being named Player of the Year last season.
“I was something that I had to do,” she said of the recovery process. “I knew I wanted to get back playing. Studying physio at the time, I was doing my Masters in strength and conditioning. I enjoy the gym and I enjoy doing the strength and conditioning.
“I had a very good S&C Coach at the time too, Paul Parker, and that made things a lot easier. I probably never thought about being a professional athlete, but when the opportunity came, I thought: “why not” and you have enough time when you retire to be looking back on it.”
The offer Gold Coast made was too good to turn down. Time is ticking away and the door to professional sport may never open again.
The AFLW began in 2017 and it’s the fourth season of the Gold Coast but they’ve never made the play-offs. Their upward curve took them to within a score of being inside the top eight last season. The hopes are rooted of going one step further in 2023.
“That’s one of the main reasons why I was attracted to the club,” McLaughlin reveals.
“I spoke to the coach and he even though it was a relatively new club, every year they have finished a bit higher.
“They are really pushing to get to the play-offs for the first time in their history. For me, I liked the way he spoke about it, what he was trying to do and what the team were trying to do. I was hoping I could add something to help the team do that.”
The shape of the ball has changed but Niamh’s love for sport remains.