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Bendigo's Andrew Hickey puts girls' footy on the map in Ireland

19 Aug, 2011 03:48 PM

AUSSIE Rules for women is thriving in Ireland thanks to the dedication of former White Hills footballer Andrew Hickey. He talks to ADAM BOURKE about his journey from Scott Street Oval to becoming an international coach.

WHEN Andrew Hickey moved to Ireland to marry his partner Marie two years ago he thought his only contact with Aussie Rules would be via the internet.

A passionate Collingwood fan and self-proclaimed champion of the White Hills reserves, Hickey loved footy and all the trimmings that come with being part of a club.

Little did he know at the time that the move to Ireland combined with his love of the game would take him to an international level.

This week Hickey is back in Australia, coaching Ireland’s women’s team at the AFL’s International Cup.

With two wins from their first two matches in Sydney, the Ireland Banshees are favoured to qualify for next Friday’s grand final in Melbourne.

An amazing achievement considering that a little more than 12 months ago women didn’t play Aussies Rules in Ireland.

Last July, Hickey, who is the captain-coach of the Belfast Redbacks in Ireland’s men’s Aussies Rules competition, spotted an advertisement on the internet for an Aussie Rules European Championship in Milan in October.

Marie half-jokingly suggested to her husband that they should organise an Irish women’s team.

Three months later the Hickey-coached Ireland defeated Italy in the grand final to win the European Championship.

“It was a pipe dream,’’ Hickey admitted yesterday. “We decided to start a team in our home town of Kilrea first, just to gauge if there would be enough interest.

“Kilray only has a population of 1000 and on the first training night we had eight girls turn up. We called ourselves the Kilray Kookaburras and the girls had a lot of fun. The next week we had 16 girls at training.

“We contacted some women Gaelic Football clubs to see if they’d be interested in playing us in an Aussie Rules practice match.

“We took on some Gaelic Football players from Derry and Dublin in a practice game at Kilray in front of about 200 people. We charged two pounds to get in, sold a heap of raffle tickets and made some money to go towards the Milan trip.

“Once we won the European title we got some good press in Ireland and now we have our own women’s Aussies Rules league with teams in Kilray, Cork and Dublin.”

Games in Ireland are played on Gaelic Football pitches with footballs borrowed from the male clubs.

“Obviously, the grounds are a lot narrower than your traditional Aussies Rules grounds,’’ Hickey said.

“When you kick for goal you sometimes hit the cross bar between the goal posts as well.

“The town of Kilray has been fantastic for us. We get a big crowd to all our games.”

Hickey’s the first to admit he wasn’t the most skilful player in his days on the hallowed turf at Scott Street in White Hills.

But he’s enjoyed teaching the Irish the finer points of the game.

“Handballing was the most difficult skill for them to start with,’’ he said.

“Most of them would throw the ball in the air and then try and hit it.

“A lof of the girls come from a rugby or Gaelic Football background, so they love the physicality and the running parts of the game.

“Most of them can kick drop punts pretty well now as well.”

Those skills were on display in Ireland’s round one win over Canada on Monday.

The Banshees won 4.7 (31) to 1.1 (7) in an encounter Hickey described as “bruising”.

“Both teams came off the ground black and blue... there were some big bumps and tackles,’’ he said.

“Our first goal of the game was from a girl who kicked a drop punt with her wrong foot from the boundary line.

“I was pretty happy about that one.”

With former White Hills coach Jim Angove’s words as his inspiration, Hickey has urged his squad to play a running style of game.

“Handball, playing-on and breaking the lines are big parts of our game,’’ he said.

“Canada’s side was very much made up of players with a rugby background, so moving the ball quickly and breaking them down with handball made it easier for us.”

The coach is taking the Cup seriously, placing an alcohol ban on himself and the players for the duration of the tournament.

“The girls have been very disciplined,’’ Hickey said.

“We’ve had three functions this week with open bars and the girls have stuck to the orange juice and lemonade.”

Ireland has further preliminary round matches against Papua New Guinea in Sydney tomorrow and the United States in Melbourne on Wednesday.

A win against PNG should be enough to qualify the Banshees for the grand final.

“PNG were the favourites to win it before the Cup started, but they copped a belting from the USA yesterday,’’ Hickey said.

“The USA are probably the team to beat at the moment, but we’re quietly confident we can do well.”

Win, lose or draw, Hickey is content with the knowledge that he has helped Aussies Rules for women take off in his new homeland.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,’’ he said.

“Seeing the girls at that first training session compared to where we’re at today... it’s the proudest moment I’ve had in footy coaching.”