Niall McKeever of the Brisbane Lions is congratulated by team-mates after kicking his first career goal in 2011.
Niall McKeever of the Brisbane Lions is congratulated by team-mates after kicking his first career goal in 2011. AAP

Hard work behind rise of the Irish

FORGET luck, hard work is what usually gets Irish recruits their first taste of AFL footy.

It even took the greatest 'import' of them all, Jim Stynes, almost three years from the time he touched down in Australia, as part of the initial 'Irish Experiment', to making his debut for Melbourne in 1987.

Collingwood's Caolan Mooney might be the exception, having been selected this week by Collingwood after just a handful of games with the Magpies' reserves in the VFL, his most recent yielding five goals.

Niall McKeever spent a year and a half on Brisbane's rookie list before being called into senior action by coach Michael Voss. No doubt the likable young lad from Portglenone, just north of Belfast, had earned it.

Before his debut this time last year, Voss said of McKeever: "Nobody has worked harder for the opportunity". And then came the ultimate compliment from the ultimate warrior: "As a coach, you would pick him to go to war with you".

The now 23-year-old won't need to go to war, but he has certainly been earmarked by Voss for some major battles in the years ahead, grooming him to hold down the all-important full-back post. Already he's had to contend with Travis Cloke and Michael Hurley.

McKeever was a budding star in Gaelic football with county Antrim, as the exploits of countryman and Sydney premiership player Tadgh Kennelly in Aussie rules fuelled his interest in the sport.

"I never really thought about playing AFL, never really considered it," he explained this week. "It wasn't an option I suppose, because it's not as if you just pick up a phone and ask if you can play."

In the end, the ones doing the calling were AFL recruiters, to invite the incredibly athletic 195cm-tall McKeever Down Under to have a dinky-di crack at the code.

"I trained with the Saints and Tigers for a week each in '08, and I got injured within the first few days of being out," he recalled. "It wasn't so good."

But, Brisbane head-hunter Graeme Allan, now responsible for putting together the talent at GWS, had obviously seen enough and made the journey to Ireland midway through 2009 to entice McKeever over with some Lions gear, a footy ... and a two-year contract.

McKeever officially became a Brisbane player later that year when he was selected by the club with the 67th pick in the rookie draft.

Like most Irishmen, coming to grips with the oval-shaped ball was the most difficult thing to master.

"I think that's the hardest thing for the boys to pick up, just the whole kicking aspect, the different-shaped ball," McKeever said. "It took a while to get used to, but (I'm) slowly getting there."

Having eventually played 10 games in 2011, McKeever has added six this season after a pre-season interrupted by niggling injuries (shin splints, hamstring, quad).

"That definitely held me back in the first few weeks of the season, I felt I didn't train as much as I would've liked," he said.

Despite the setbacks, McKeever said he remained determined to make it in the AFL.

"To be honest, I've always backed myself, always had confidence in my own ability that I'm good enough to be out here, that I'm good enough to play at AFL level," he said.

McKeever said having Pearce Hanley, who is really turning heads this season after being recruited with pick 95 in the 2009 national draft, at the Lions helped him settle into his new environment - and communicate with teammates after they had trouble understanding him thanks to his thick Irish accent when he first arrived.

McKeever and Hanley are part of a growing contingent of Irishmen now in AFL ranks, with rookie Paul Cribbin alongside Mooney and Clarke at Collingwood, Zach Tuohy at Carlton, Tommy Lynch now at Sydney after crossing from St Kilda and Setanta O'hAilphin traded to GWS from Carlton.

"All the boys keep in contact with each other," McKeever said.

McKeever said he is loving his time in Brisbane - and it's even provided a taste of Ireland in recent days.

"Usually I'm covering myself up in sunscreen, but it's been pouring down rain the last few days, it been a bit more at home like I suppose," he said.

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