Home from a land Down Under: Youngest ever Irish AFL star balances sports and studies 

Erika O'Shea
Erika O'Shea playing for Cork LGFA. Photo by Dave Henry Sports Media.

Erika O’Shea spoke to the Limerick Voice after returning from Australia.

By Siadbh Redmond

University of Limerick student and All-Star winner Erika O’Shea returned home recently after an injury ended her season in Australia. 

She has been playing in the O’Connor Cup with UL’s team and will represent Cork this year before going back Down Under at the end of this Inter-County season.  

Erika was one of Cork’s most vital players during the 2021 GAA season, earning her All-Star during the campaign and gathering plenty of attention from Aussie Rules football clubs competing in the Australian Football League (AFL), who were keen to sign one of LGFA’s most exciting talents.   

A two-year deal with North Melbourne sent Erika to the other side of the World when she was still in her teens.  

This made Erika the youngest ever Irish LGFA player to play AFL, one of her many accomplishments.  

“It was obviously very intimidating going over there at such a young age, but the whole idea of being able to become a professional athlete and make it my full-time job, I couldn’t let that opportunity go”.   

AFL is described as a fast-paced and physically demanding sport with elements of rugby and football included in it.   

A larger field and an oval ball make the game quite different from Women’s football. The aim of AFL is to kick the ball through the two tallest goalposts which are set at either end of the ground.   

“I’ve watched the sport for years and I’ve followed the Irish girls over they’re like Sarah Rowe and Sinead Goldrick and from this I always thought it was like rugby, but it’s much more tactical and intense than that”.   

At only 20, Erika’s youth and elite endurance made her an ideal match for the sport of AFL, but the physicality was a huge difference for her at the beginning of her career.  

“I went over to Australia with Vikki Wall, who is obviously much more built than I am, so I had to go to the gym a lot and cut down on all my running, which is the opposite of my fitness plans for GAA”.   

After successfully making her debut for the club in round one of the AFL in 2022 and subsequently playing in the following 10 rounds, Erika’s campaign was cut short. 

The Irish footballer was involved in a shuddering collision, which saw her lose vision in one eye after she took an elbow to it, which led to her entire eye filling with blood. 

She was then diagnosed with extreme hyphema – a pooling of blood in the anterior chamber of the left eye which completely blocked her vision for a period of time while she was in hospital.   

Being so young and over 25 hours away from home, Erika realised that at this moment she was completely alone.   

“There was no one I could call, as all the girls were still playing the game, I just got injured in.  

“It was an incredibly lonely experience but all the same I grew up a bit and learnt how to deal with these issues on my own”.   

Following on from this injury and after recovering fully, Erika decided to fly home to play county LGFA again for Cork in the off season of AFL.   

Not only is O’Shea attempting to balance studying sports science and her own life, but she is also trying to fit county and college GAA into her schedule.   

“I find balancing everything quite difficult, and I can see why other AFL athletes don’t come back and play GAA in the off season. Both my AFL and GAA coaches are asking completely different things from me, so I do feel sometimes that I am burning myself out, but I am trying to balance things better”.   

Between all this, she is still trying to find the balance between AFL and LGFA, as both sports are totally different.   

“I know people are commenting on my performances for Cork recently saying I am rusty and not as good as I used to be.  

“After getting the All-Star so young, I feel like there is so much pressure on me and I found it hard to deal with that the first few weeks I was back”.   

Erika was told to completely switch her gym regimes before the inter-county league started back up, so that she would be up to speed. 

But trying to fit into a sport that she hasn’t played in almost a year has been a tough adjustment.   

The non-contact element of LGFA is what the Cork Native is finding most difficult at the moment, with added pressure coming from onlookers now as well.   

“You go in with a hard tackle like AFL, almost forgetting you’re playing LGFA and immediately you get given out to or sent off, so in that sense you are always playing holding back compared to what you used to do.”  

Erika is not one to give up without a fight and says she is trying to bounce back from a rough start in the Inter-County league.  

She is hoping that with extra training and focusing on the O’Connor Cup with UL, her playing standard will be back to normal.   

“The friends I’ve made in UL through the GAA team are like my family now because we all got so close playing together and I want to win another O’Connor Cup before I stop going to college. 

“So that’s the aim at the moment, play college GAA and win the All-Ireland before going back to Melbourne.”  

Between all of this, Erika O’Shea remains one of the brightest talents in LFGA and is a credit to herself for adjusting to the demands of two different sports in such a short space of time.   

Still at such a young age, O’Shea has a world of endless possibilities and is sure to be a huge presence in AFL when she returns to her club in North Melbourne. 

More stories from our 2023 print edition

UL’s campaign to retain O’Connor Cup

By Siadbh Redmond

UL Team with the O’Connor Cup. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

The Yoplait Ladies HEC O’Connor Cup features eight of the best universities in Ireland and is the prime competition for third-level Ladies football. 

Last year, the University of Limerick won the O’Connor Cup after beating University College Cork in a hard-fought final, emerging victorious by a single point. 

It was the University’s 12th title in the history of the competition and their second victory in a row. 

Furthermore, it was the seventh year in succession that UL had reached the final of the tournament. 

Such a run had never been achieved before, although UL did manage to win five O’Connor Cups in a row from 1993 to 1997. 

They had won the previous instalment of the Corn Uí Chonchúir in 2019 – it was not contested in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The likes of Clare star Aisling Reidy and Ailish Morrissey were involved throughout the 2022 campaign and returned to line out for the college this year also. 

The most recent iteration of the competition, it took place during the beginning of the Lidl National League season, with many of their stars playing on both fronts. 

Cork All-Star Erika O’Shea came back into the fold for the 2023 O’Connor Cup, with the aim of helping the college retain their status as All-Ireland champions. 

The student has lined out for club, college and county since coming back to Ireland. 

This came after her debut AFL season with North Melbourne was cut short when she picked up an eye injury. 

O’Shea spoke about her return to the UL side and getting to take part in the competition once more for the college. 

“The friends I made in UL are like my family now from the team because we just all got so close, the AFL prodigy noted.  

“I want to win another O’Connor Cup before I stop going to college.” 

See for updates on O’Connor results.   

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