Mark Duncan talks to former Laois footballer Colm Begley, whose reputation continues to grow at the Brisbane Lions
ON A HUMID, late Wednesday afternoon in March the Brisbane Lions are put through their paces. Coach Leigh Matthews, a stout cut of a man, stands beside a wheelie bin of balls in the middle of the vast oval field and directs operations.
The hard pre-season graft over, the session is little more than a series of drills: handpassing, kicking, support play, the sort of stuff that most GAA teams do as a matter of routine.
Giffen Park, where the Lions train, is situated in the south-east suburb of Coorparoo, a short distance from the Gabba, the club’s city base. The ground is unfenced, open to the public and as this day gives way to early evening it is brimming with activity.
Much of it is centred not around the imposing herd of professional athletes, but on the neighbouring field where an army of kids, little more than seven or eight years old, are being schooled in elementary skills by the local junior Aussie Rules club.
By the time the Lions players, among them Laois’s Colm Begley, finish up and head for the showers, the kids and their parents are waiting for them.
No security. No barriers. These are accessible sports stars: they sign autographs and mix easily. “That’s one of the really good things about Brisbane”, says Begley. “It’s more relaxed here, not as hard-core.”
In AFL terms, the Brisbane Lions operate on the periphery, a two-and-a-half hour flight from Melbourne, the sport’s birthplace and stronghold still. The distance makes a difference. “Melbourne is just crazy. It’s like a religion there, you know”, Begley remarks, relieved, you sense, that he remains at a remove from the fervour of it.
“I think if you’re up in Melbourne, you have the media more around you, I think you’re probably pumped up a bit more as well. I mean if you’re out on the town, you’re immediately recognised and you’re the focal point of the night. It can happen that your head can get a little big and, you know, you can get ahead of yourself, which you don’t want, especially when you can go from rising real well to hitting a dead wall and not playing games.”
Few players have risen as well, or as fast as Begley. Last season, only his second in the sport, he established himself as a first team regular, starting 19 of the Lions’ 22 Premiership games and ending up as Club Rookie of the Year.
A young man might be excused if he lost the run of himself. But Begley, at 21, appears remarkably mature. Self-effacing, he prefers to talk about how much he has to learn rather than what he has achieved so far. “There’s always room for improvement” he says. “I’ve only been here two years and the way I look at it, I’ll never be fully perfect as a player . . . It’s a new game, it’s a game I haven’t played for all my life. So, you can’t get ahead of yourself here, especially when there’s so much competition for positions.”
Nevertheless, modesty aside, Begley’s development as an Aussie Rules player, like that of Martin Clarke at Collingwood, has stunned many AFL coaches and commentators.
He remembers how it all started, how he attended a Lions trial in Limerick in late 2005 and how, two days later, he got a call with an offer of a contract. With a life-changing decision to make, he turned to his family. His brothers, with whom he played club football in Stradbally, urged him to jump at the opportunity, but his father, initially at least, was rather less starry-eyed. Begley, after all, was the holder of an All-Ireland minor medal with Laois, had graduated to the county senior panel, and had taken up a college scholarship at UCD. In the self-contained world of the GAA, he was a made-man. Why jeopardise it?
He stewed on the offer for a couple of weeks. He turned over the pros and cons in his mind, sounded out Kerry’s own Sydney Swan, Tadhg Kennelly, and, finally, decided to accept. Begley assured his father and himself that it was less a gamble than a personal investment. “I went and met up with Tadhg and asked him about it and he told me how he went out, the advantages and the disadvantages. I told my dad then that I reckon I can do it - ‘If I go to do it, I’ll do it.’ He said, ‘right, so.’ Looking at it, it’s a win, win situation. If you come home after two years and if you don’t make it, you’ll have learned so much about looking after your body as a sports player, saved a bit of money, visited Australia.”
It helped that he wasn’t journeying alone. Fellow Laois starlet at the time, Brendan Quigley, had also been courted by the Lions. However, his Australian adventure, blighted by injury and homesickness, was short-lived. Where Begley kept thoughts of home at bay by keeping busy at the gym and lifting extra weights, a collarbone injury denied Quigley similar release and he returned shortly after to Timahoe and Laois, picking up where he left off as one of the county’s brightest prospects.
For Begley, the wrench from family and the rhythms of the GAA was something for which he was prepared, but struck by nonetheless. “It’s a huge adjustment, massive, especially when you grow up with Gaelic football and stuff, growing up living that life . . You come over here then and it’s a different place: new friends, a different life altogether. Your family isn’t just a two-hour drive away . . . If you have two weeks off, you know, you still can’t go home because it’s such a long trip . . . but when you decide to come over, you set yourself mentally for that. You say to yourself, ‘I’m leaving now to play a different sport. I’m going to be on my own, away from family and friends for nine months of the year, 10 months of the year,’ so you set yourself up for that.”
The new life he has set for himself has, for the most part, revolved around training and games. At home, balancing the demands of club, county and college had taught him much about the regimen of training, but it still took time for his body to adapt to a professional routine.
“You’re training every day and it’s just a different workload,” he says. “It has different effects on your body the first few weeks you’re over here. You find yourself fine for a few weeks, but then you’re pretty tired, you mightn’t have got used to training every day and you’re drained. It takes a while to get used to.”
He catches himself momentarily and laughs, wary of making of it sound like a burden. “But it’s a good job,” he quickly adds. “You wake up in the morning and what have you to do for work? Go down and do a weights session or whatever, a running or skills session. I love it, so it’s an adjustment you enjoy taking part in, you relish it when you’re doing it.”
It’s not all grind, of course. One of the great privileges - and potential pitfalls - of the professional life is the free time that comes with it and Begley is anxious not to squander it.
“You want to fill it up with something worthwhile,” he remarks. He tried his hand at a business course, but it didn’t work out, the books getting squeezed as he adjusted to his new sporting demands. And anyway, accountancy was just “too boring”. He plans to look again at university options. In the meantime, he’s taken up golf and plays regularly with some of the other Lions players. He’s seen a bit of Australia too, though not in the boozy, carefree way that other Irish lads his age might - “You don’t get to see it like that.”
He’s not complaining. Begley is enjoying the Australian lifestyle and professional experience and, for now, it’s where he sees himself. And while a return to Ireland is part of the overall plan, it may not be for another five or six years. In time he hopes to still make a contribution to Laois. His exile, however, has not prevented him from giving Stradbally a dig out over the last couple of years, the AFL closed season dovetailing nicely with the business end of the Laois championship. On both occasions, however, Stradbally came up short.
“The first year I went home, we should have won: Ballyroan beat us in a semi-final. I won’t forget that. The second year I came back we got to a county final and got smashed by Portlaoise and I won’t forget that either. That was a bad day.”
Poppies don’t grow tall in the thicket of Laois football and against Portlaoise in particular, he shipped his share of verbal taunts. A “bit of banter” is how Begley prefers to remember it.
“There was a bit of slagging here and there,” he recalls. “You know, ‘Come on boys, he’s not worth a f****n’ s***e. Look at him, he can’t even kick the ball anymore.’ ”
The abuse, if anything, made Begley feel more at home and he responded, as his father had always told him to do, by simply smiling back.
He returned to Australia after that defeat to Portlaoise. He was without a county championship medal, but with a new recruit. Mayo teenager Pearse Hanley had been approached by the Brisbane Lions during the summer, having caught the eye of scouts in the Under-17 International Rules series with Australia the previous year. Begley and Hanley had talked on the phone, but never met before they stepped on the plane in Dublin. The two got on well and now share a house with fellow Lions player Cheynee Stiller.
“He’s doing amazingly well,” Begley says of Hanley, his 19-year-old junior. “He’s a talented footballer, a talented athlete, he’s very fast and his skills - he’s ahead of me where I was at this stage. He’s just adapted well. Whether the coaches know him because they’ve gone through me and through everything they would have known what to do, he’s just done really well.”
Begley sees no end to the AFL recruitment of young Irish players like Hanley. The clubs, he believes, know where to look in Ireland and the quality of some of the players they’ve attracted will further fuel the trend. His belief in the inevitability of a growing Irish presence in the AFL has led him to become involved in moves to establish a player welfare group, intended to help young Irish players settle in and make the most of their opportunity.
The brainchild of Tadhg Kennelly, who floated it with some of the Irish contingent, Begley is keen not to overplay the move. “It’s nothing major, it’s just something to help us out,” he says. Part of it will simply involve the Irish players catching up with each other and checking if anybody’s got problems. But another part of it may involve opening up previously unexplored commercial avenues. “As a group”, Begley believes the Irish players “have a lot to offer different teams . . You always look for something to give you more opportunity and I think it’ll help the young fellas coming out a lot as well, knowing that they have something to lean back on, or even a support group from the older players.”
The greening of Australian Rules, it seems, has only started.
Mark Duncan is a co-founder of the InQuest research company and a historian of the GAA
© 2008 The Irish Times
Filed under: Laois Football