Michael Fowler – The Age
When the ball ricocheted off the post in Collingwood’s practice match against the Bulldogs, Sarah Rowe immediately pounced and booted it through the uprights for what she thought was her third goal of the afternoon.
“I was like, ‘duh, every sport, when it hits the post, you play on’. Soccer, football, hockey. It’s the only sport you don’t. I thought I had a nice little handy goal for myself. I was happy.”
If those words sound like they belong to somebody who had never played a game of Australian rules football before, well – they are.
Rowe is Collingwood’s superstar Irish recruit. A household name of the female Gaelic football competition who’s also represented Ireland in soccer, the 23-year-old says interest in her services from each of the Melbourne clubs began in mid-2018 when they invited her to Australia.
She felt instantly at home.
“When I was out in Australia in May I went to some Irish pub, I walked in and I knew five people,” she says.
As ever, it was a smooth Eddie McGuire move at a President’s Club lunch in May that ultimately helped sway Rowe towards the Pies.
“I was just sitting there, I didn’t even know that anybody knew my name or anything. Then Eddie said, ‘I’d like to welcome our new Irish recruit, Sarah Rowe, all the way from Mayo’. He called me up on stage and asked what number I wear at home, and I said 14. And he said, ‘well look here, we have a Collingwood jersey with number 14 and the name Rowe on the back, what a coincidence’.”
“They always have the nice little touches at Collingwood. That’s one thing I’ll say about them,” says Rowe, who listed Carlton and the Bulldogs as her next preferences at the time.
The typically lively Irishwoman’s knowledge of her adopted side is sound: “I believe they’re not the must loved club.” In a further twist to the tale, she says that the direct rival of her Gaelic team, Mayo, is Dublin – the “Collingwood of Ireland”.
“I find that funny, because in my opinion, from home, any teams I don’t like are the teams that have done well or have something that others don’t have,” she says.
“Normally it’s a jealousy thing, so I think that Collingwood – the facilities are good, they’re in a really good location, Eddie’s the president. There’s numerous things.”
Having taken up both Gaelic football and soccer from the age of eight, Rowe remarkably continued playing both simultaneously up until she’d received five caps for the Irish senior soccer team at 18.
Indeed, Rowe would likely never have heard of McGuire if things in her fledgling soccer career had panned out differently.
Having played for all junior teams since the Under 15s, including at the European Championships with the Under 19s, Rowe says she was ready to commit full-time to soccer if her coach at those championships had been promoted to the senior position.
He wasn’t, and balancing 12 training sessions a week with starting college meant an 18-year-old Rowe had to commit to Gaelic football (GA) or soccer.
“GA has picked up a lot in Ireland. I see it as the AFLW of Ireland. It’s on the rise, it’s a sport where we’re getting more attendance, there’s more role models to look up to,” she says.
“It was a good time for me to pick that sport, and I probably haven’t looked back since.”
Rowe says the most noticeable difference is the organisation and facilities on offer in Australia, in particular Collingwood’s Holden Centre where she says fellow international import Mason Cox “must have a bed in the club – he’s always here.”
Kicking an oval ball rather than the round one of Gaelic football requires an entirely different technique, according to Rowe, which has required her to go back to basics through intensive coaching and a special piece of equipment she packed in her bag home at Christmas.
“I took one of those one-touch footies, where you kick it and it flings back in your face,” she says.
Her Gaelic position is as the number 14 – “like the full-forward, in close to the goal” – and Pies coach Wayne Siekman is expected to use her as a roving forward in the first match of the 2019 season against Geelong on Saturday.
She says she’ll be more prepared for the physicality after the practice match.
“There was a lot more hitting off the ball that I’m not used to. It’s not a personal thing, it’s part of the game. But if that happened in GA, you’d nearly be looking twice at the player that hit you – you can’t do that.”
Much to the amusement of her new teammates, Rowe kept a notebook of new vocabulary featuring words and phrases like “contest”, “boundary” (rather than “sideline”) and “gain territory”, but she learns best out on the oval.
“I still have lots of learning to do. Every day’s a school day out here … There is no real pressure on me. It’s my first few weeks playing a new sport, and there’s girls that have 10 years experience on me,” she says.
“But I’m definitely not here just to take part.”