GAA Football

GAA county training regimes as good as AFL: Conor McKenna

27 September 2017; In attendance at the announcement of EirGrid as team sponsor for the International Rules side that will travel to Australia over the two-test series in November are Ireland International Rules manager Joe Kernan and player Conor McKenna. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

EMERGING AFL star Conor McKenna believes the training regimes of top county teams in the GAA are now on a par with what the clubs are doing in Aussie Rules.

Speaking at the EirGrid International Rules launch in Dublin’s Australian Embassy yesterday, the Tyrone native also revealed that his own stubbornness is the reason why he is still Down Under.

The 21-year-old Eglish clubman struggled with homesickness in his first year in Australia – 2014 – but he is now settled and celebrated signing a four-year contract with Essendon Bombers a fortnight ago.

“I said if I played one game and I didn’t like it I’d come home, but I wouldn’t leave until I played one game,” said the former Tyrone minor.

“I played one game and I enjoyed it. I started enjoying it more the second year and it gets a bit easier. It’s important to get used to the lifestyle and being away from your family and friends.

“I think I’m just a bit stubborn, to tell you the truth. I didn’t want to go over for a couple of years and come back. It’s more the homesickness rather than missing Gaelic Games. If you can pass that, that’s a massive part.”

Undoubtedly 2017 has been McKenna’s breakthrough year having played 19 games in defence for the Bombers who lost in the first week of the AFL finals to Sydney.

“I surprised myself,” he admitted.

“I gave myself a target of playing maybe 10 games this year and I played 19 which was better than what I thought. I always had a bit of belief in myself but it was trying to get that consistency and just to know you’re there for the right reasons. You’re there to play AFL.”

Given his background in Aussie Rules, McKenna has already been assured of a place on Joe Kernan’s International Rules 23-man squad that travels for a two-game series with their hosts on November 12 and 18.

Comparing the AFL with Gaelic football, McKenna doesn’t believe there is much difference in the amount of training each code undertakes.

“The AFL is a cut-throat industry,” he said. “If they don’t want you, there is no love lost, they’ll just cut you.

“But I suppose that’s the way they have to be because there are normally about six or seven players leave at the end of the year or get de-listed. Most teams probably draft in between five and eight players every year, so if you are drafting eight players then eight players have to go.”

Despite the rigours of playing professionally, McKenna would encourage any young GAA player to give the AFL a go.

“If a young lad asked me should he go I would say go.

“It’s a professional sport, you devote your whole life to it. Back home, you’re playing for your club and county. It is a bit crazy because some of the training county teams are doing is up there with what we’re doing and we’re professional athletes. The professionalism [in GAA] is unbelievable.”

The biggest hurdle he had to overcome in the AFL was the speed of games.

“You have a lot less time to think about it, you have to know what you are going to do before you even get the ball. And especially for a young lad in your first game, they pick on you like. My first game they got stuck in to me, but there’s a bit of fight in me.”

McKenna has been back on home soil for around 10 days and although Eglish are out of the Championship he plans to hook up with Kernan’s squad over the coming weeks and is looking forward to facing some of his Essendon team-mates in Adelaide and Perth next month.

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