THE 2021 AFL season kicks off this morning at 8.25am Irish time and unlike last season’s opening round of fixtures, there will be crowds present this time around.

Fans will return to AFL grounds in Victoria for the first time in almost 12 months, with a 50% capacity set to be permitted at Melbourne’s MCG and Marvel Stadium.

There are currently 14 Irish players in Aussie Rules, with Ross McQuillan and Conor Glass the most recent converts to return home. 

The Irish players feature across nine clubs, five of them based in Melbourne, two in Sydney and two in Queensland. We’ll run through each of these teams and the Irish players involved.

1. Geelong Cats

The most experienced Irishman in the AFL, Zach Tuohy.

Source: AAP/PA Images

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By far the strongest AFL side containing Irish players, Geelong went all the way to last year’s Grand final only to fall to Richmond 81-50. Zach Tuohy (Laois) and Mark O’Connor (Kerry) both played big roles in Geelong’s run to last year’s decider. 

Tuohy, by far the most experienced Irishman in the AFL with 205 appearances to his name, has yet to win a premiership medal. At 31 he still has time, but this may be the Laois man’s best shot at landing the big prize.

O’Connor is firmly established in the Cats side having appeared in 44 of 51 possible games in the past two seasons.

Stefan Okunbar (Kerry), 22, suffered a ruptured Achilles that sidelined him for most of last year. He has yet to make his AFL debut but will be hoping to put his injury problems behind him and make the step up in 2021.

2. Essendon Bombers

Cian McBride during a 2020 pre-season game for Essendon.

Source: AAP/PA Images

Essendon are down to one Irishman after Conor McKenna and Ross McQuillan returned to Tyrone and Armagh respectively in 2020.

Last season was Cian McBride’s first in Australia and the former Meath U20 midfielder spent the year lining out in scratch matches for the Bombers. Essendon are hoping to employ McBride as defender and it may be 2022 before he makes his AFL bow. 

3. Sydney Swans

Having helped Tipperary to a fairlytale Munster title during the off-season, Colin O’Riordan flew back to Sydney determined to earn a new contract as he enters the final year of his current deal.

The JK Bracken’s clubman battled injury during his early days in Australia. He made three AFL appearances in 2018, 12 in 2019 but just eight in a Covid-disrupted 2020 season.

Wexford native Barry O’Connor was added to Sydney’s senior list during last season, which indicates his AFL bow may not be far away.

A son of All-Ireland hurling winner George, the 22-year-old is under the watchful eye of assistant coach Tadhg Kennelly.

 4. Hawthorn

With Conor Glass having returned home to the Derry ranks, it is left to Meath’s Conor Nash to fly the Irish flag for Hawthorn.

The Simonstown Gaels club man only made two appearances last year to add to his career total of 21 for a Hawthorn club that finished 15th last year.

Hawthorn’s Conor Nash

Source: AAP/PA Images

5. Collingwood

Derry’s Anton Tohill and Cork’s Mark Keane are both in the Collingwood ranks. Tohill, who committed to a new contract extension last December, has yet to make the jump to the senior grade after making progress with the VFL reserve team.

Keane did make the senior breakthrough last year with his debut in August in Fremantle. His big 2020 sporting moment was the last-gasp goal for Cork that dumped Kerry out in the Munster semi-final but did suffer an injury setback in AFL pre-season when damaging his finger.

Collingwood lost out to Geelong at the semi-final stage of the 2020 AFL finals series.

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Cork footballer Mark Keane.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

6. Gold Coast Suns 

Sligo native Luke Towey is the Irish representative for a club that finished 14th last year. The 21-year-old newcomer signed in October 2019 and is still in the early stages of his Australian Rules career.

7. Brisbane Lions 

There are two Irish players involved here with Brisbane Lions, who lost out to Geelong at the preliminary final stage in 2020. Dublin’s James Madden signed for them in August 2018, he was back in Gaelic football action briefly last year as his club Ballyboden St-Enda’s contested the All-Ireland semi-final. He is still chasing his AFL debut.

He is joined by a new recruit in Deividas Uosis, the player born in Lithuania who starred for the Kerry underage teams and his club Dingle.

Deividas Uosis in action for Kerry against Galway in last year’s All-Ireland U20 semi-final.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

8. Greater Western Sydney Giants

Derry’s Callum Brown is the Irish representative for GWS Giants, who missed out on the finals series last year by finishing in 10th place. The Limavady man signed a new one-year contract in 2020 with the club and after a promising underage Gaelic football career in the Derry colours, will hope to kick on with a first-team showing in 2021 after making 19 appearances so far for the club’s reserve team where he has chalked up seven goals.

9. St Kilda

2014 All-Ireland minor hurling winning captain Darragh Joyce lines out for St Kilda, who reached the semi-finals in the 2020 final series but were soundly defeated by Richmond. The Rower-Inistioge club man has made five AFL appearances for a club he joined back in 2016 but injuries have hampered his development in recent times.

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