Tuesday 25 October 2016

The pros and cons of home

Former AFL star Begley keen to make his mark for elite amateurs

Ireland's Colm Begley during a press conference at Carton House, Maynooth, Kildare
Ireland's Colm Begley during a press conference at Carton House, Maynooth, Kildare

Another year, another International Rules series, another chance for Colm Begley to - well - make his point to the Aussies.

For the first two series of his involvement - '06 and '08 - the Laois footballer was an Aussie Rules professional playing for his native land against his fellow pros.

Yet from the 2010 series onward, Begley has been a born-again amateur. So when he runs onto Croke Park for Saturday's EirGrid International Rules showdown, it won't be just a case of national pride.

"For me, I've probably two reasons," he muses. "GAA players who are amateur get a chance to prove themselves against some of the top athletes in the world … and they are some of the top athletes, fitness-wise and strength-wise, in field-based sports.

"As players now, we consider ourselves professionals in the way we train. So to go against these fellas and beat them, physically and in game-set, is always a proud moment for lads.

"But for me as well it goes both ways. To show myself and then maybe even show them that 'Oh yeah, maybe he could have made it' … or 'He was a good player out there and he is back here as well'."

For a while, it looked like Begley would be more than good in the AFL. After an eye-catching debut season with Laois in 2005, the then 19-year-old was snapped up by Brisbane on a rookie contract.

He spent three years with the Lions, his rapid progress underlined by his selection as club rookie of the year in '07. But he was released after an injury-hit '08; he subsequently signed for St Kilda but struggled to break into a team that went all the way to the Grand Final. He opted to come home at the end of the '09 season, thus ending a four-year adventure.

Yet, most years, he gets a reminder of that former life. Saturday will be his 12th cap for Ireland.

Asked if he would still like to be out there, living the dream, the Dublin-based Parnells clubman (29) admits: "Part of me would, yeah definitely. If I'd made it properly and was able to make a career for myself. I did enjoy the sport, I did enjoy the people and the place itself. So if that option was still there … if you get a chance to make a career for yourself out of sport, that's always the best option."

The flip side is that, as an ex-pat, he wouldn't have got to experience the positives of time spent with his family and the chance this college year to finish his DCU degree.

Begley has often asked himself why it didn't work out; but he accepts that the AFL mirrors the ultra-competitive culture of a sports-mad nation. "The average lifespan is three, three-and-a-half years. Players have to push themselves to the limit," he says. "They're very competitive. They don't like losing. But what country likes losing? They do take it personally. Part of their game involves sledging at a younger age. We'll see what happens."

He references the Aussies' sense of pride that they "don't want to be beaten by amateurs. But over the years, they do know what's going on in Ireland. Often the boys have asked me: 'How are you still not getting paid?' And I said: 'I don't know, to be honest.'

"They've asked about training, pre-season, what we do. So they do know that we're not just lads who are out training Tuesday and Thursday and play a game on Saturday and go on the beer."

A different era.

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