2012 could be viewed in many ways as a watershed year for the so-called “Irish Experiment” and the numerous Irish players playing with AFL clubs.

With 2011 having seen the retirement of Tadhg Kennelly after 10 successful years with the Sydney Swans, which of course included a memorable Premiership in 2005, the onus now falls on the new wave of Irish recruits to prove that they have what it takes to live up to the lofty standards set by Kennelly and the great Jim Stynes.

The likes of Zach Tuohy and the returning Marty Clarke will be looking to establish themselves in the first 22 of their respective Premiership-chasing outfits in Carlton and Collingwood.

Pearce Hanley will want to build on his breakout year in 2011 with the Brisbane Lions by consolidating his position as the premier Irishman in the competition.

Whatever your views on the whole area of international recruitment, it is undeniable that Irish players are now a firm feature of the AFL and their progress will provide an interesting aside to the 2012 season.

Below is Part 1 of the Irishmen to look out for in 2012…

Pearce Hanley Brisbane Lions AFLPearce Hanley (Brisbane Lions)

Hanley was undoubtedly the Irish star of the AFL in 2011, appearing in every game for the Lions and finishing fourth in the club’s Best and Fairest.

Coming into 2011, Hanley was on the fringes of the Lions’ 22 after he showed glimpses of his potential during a string of impressive games at the back end of 2010.

Few would have predicted that Hanley would develop quickly into one of Michael Voss’ most important players, providing pace and accurate distribution coming out of the backline.

Prospects for 2012

The big question for Hanley now is can he back up his stellar 2011 form with further improvement in 2012?

The player himself has spoken of a desire to move into midfield but all indications in pre-season would suggest that he is likely to remain on a half-back flank for the time being at least, with sporadic stints further up the ground on a wing likely also.

A good year if…

He can average 20 odd touches a game, continue to provide his trademark dash with ball in hand and eradicate the tendency to have one brain fade every game. Midfield-time would be a bonus.

Niall McKeever (Brisbane Lions)

The big man from County Antrim was something of a surprise package in 2011, playing 10 senior games and competing admirably as a tall defender against some of the top forwards in the business.

One of the fittest players in the Brisbane squad, McKeever has many of the physical attributes vital to the make-up of a modern AFL player and Michael Voss is a known fan of his commitment on the field and willingness to learn the game both on and off of it.

Prospects for 2012

The number of games McKeever plays in 2012 could well depend on the health of other members of the Lions backline, as it was only an injury to Daniel Merrett in 2011 that gave him a run of games in the first team.

However, a strong showing over the next couple of pre-season matches could see him nail down a first-22 spot and if the improvement levels he showed last year continue, McKeever will be a tough man to dislodge.

A good year if…

He plays 14-16 games and continues to show noticeable signs of improvement. A few jousts with some big names à la Travis Cloke last year would also be a welcome sight.

Some tweaks to his awkward but strangely effective kicking style would be pleasing but not overly important in the grand scheme of things.

Zac Touhy Carlton Blues AFLZach Tuohy (Carlton)

Tuohy is coming into 2012 off the back of a stellar finish to the 2011 season.

While he had been touted throughout 2011 as a potential rookie upgrade due to his strong performances with the Northern Bullants, it wasn’t until Round 11 that Tuohy finally made his debut against Port Adelaide.

His first touch wasn’t exactly one for the scrapbook – an attempted bounce that went backwards over his head – but he showed enough to earn a further ten appearances during the remainder of the season, including a sub appearance in the finals game with West Coast in which he kicked a memorable goal in the final quarter (see below).


Prospects for 2012

Competition for places is arguably hotter at the Blues than at any other club in the competition, such is their depth at the current time.

However, Tuohy should be in line to play his fair share of games in defence this year. A solid if unspectacular performance on Sunday against the Bulldogs got his season up and running and whether he can force his way into the 22 for the Blues’ round 1 clash with Richmond will depend on whether he can build on that in the NAB Cup over the next couple of weeks.

A good year if…

He plays the majority of Carlton’s games and starts to fulfil his massive potential.

In this writer’s opinion Tuohy has the most potential of any of the Irish players in the AFL at the moment, when one considers his kicking skills, strength overhead and the speed and running ability which seems to be second nature to all the Irish players.

While it shouldn’t necessarily be expected, it would be a surprise if Tuohy doesn’t have a major role to play in the Carlton backline in 2012 as they eye up a possible tilt at number 17.

Paul Cribbin (Collingwood)

Cribbin is still something of an unknown quantity in AFL terms. He played a number of reserve team games last year to mixed reviews and one gets the feeling that 2012 will be a crucial year in deciding Cribbin’s future as a Collingwood player.

Prospects for 2012

He’ll start the year in the reserves and any potential promotion to the senior team will depend on his performances there however, being left out of the first NAB Cup squad of the season doesn’t augur well.

A brief appearance in the NAB Cup on Saturday – having lined out for the reserves earlier in the day – was encouraging and he must take every available opportunity to impress Nathan Buckley and Co or face the prospect of being the forgotten Irishman behind the returning Clarke and new recruit Caolan Mooney.

Most observers are in agreement that he needs to impose himself more on games and add a Kennelly-esque drive to his game coming off the back flank.

A good year if…

He can get some stand-out performances early in the season in the reserves at Collingwood and at least put himself in the rookie promotion shop window, should any spots open up in the senior squad.

A solid year in the reserves with some noticeable skill and physique development should set him up for a make or break third year on the rookie list in 2013.


Part 2 will cover the remaining four Irish players playing in the AFL this year, including the returning Marty Clarke and the evergreen Setanta O’hAilpin.