‘People probably think we’re a bit obsessed. Sometimes you have to be’

Updated Jan 24th 2021, 12:00 PM

Collingwood’s Irish duo Sarah Rowe and Aishling Sheridan.

Source: AAP/PA Images

THEY’RE LIVING THE Australian dream, but those back on home soil are never too far from their thoughts.

“It’s very difficult for people in Ireland at the minute,” Sarah Rowe shakes her head, sitting next to her Collingwood team-mate, Aishling Sheridan, not long in the door from training.

“We’re both so grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to travel and that we’re over here in a team environment. We know that it can be taken away from you at any minute.” 

Team-mates, friends and housemates for quite some time now on both sides of the world, the Irish duo are gearing up for another season in the AFLW. It’s Rowe’s third with the Pies, Sheridan’s second; this one beginning like the last one ended, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

The return Down Under wasn’t exactly straightforward between visas, long-haul flights, restrictions and uncertainty about where they would end up before their eventual return to Melbourne.

Mandatory hotel quarantine brought the pair to Perth, cooped up in side-by-side hotel rooms for 14 days before bering reunited for Christmas.

“We had to do our quarantine in Western Australia so there were really no rules there, no face masks, no social distancing, no real speak of Covid,” Cavan star Sheridan recalls.

“It was quite normal, nightclubs and everything like that are open as normal as pre-Covid. We obviously had to fly back to Victoria, to Melbourne, where we are now. We still have to wear masks but there’s no cases, it’s not that serious. We’re very lucky, to be fair.”

Sheridan facing West Coast Eagles last year.

Source: AAP/PA Images

Training individually in their hotel rooms was challenging and “does take a toll on you mentally and physically,” both concede, but it had to be done. They got through it, and kept themselves occupied through the 14 days.

The focus was plain and simply on navigating quarantine on a day-by-day basis, before linking up with their team-mates and returning to the intense, top-level environment that semi-professional sport brings.

“We had gym equipment and stuff in the rooms so we were able to keep up strength that way but running fitness was something we were semi-worried about,” Sheridan admits.

“We got out of quarantine Christmas Day, which was a Friday and then we got to do a running session the Saturday, 10 and-a-half, 11 kilometres. You kind of felt sluggish but it was good to get that in.”

“We had never not ran for two weeks ever before,” Mayo forward Rowe jumps in. “It was about trying to get your body right again.”

A couple of sessions and a flight to Melbourne later, they were straight back into the deep end. Fitness testing ensued and Collingwood’s Irish duo were soon in the thick of another relentless pre-season training slog. But to no complaints.

“Once we got back in, we actually didn’t feel too bad and our fitness stayed quite good,” Sheridan smiles. “Two weeks isn’t going to kill you, especially when you keep doing HIIT classes and stuff, you are keeping that fitness base going.”

“You forget the intensity and the load that you put through your body, though,” Rowe adds. “You could train twice a day at home in Ireland but it’s just not the same.

“The physical contact, the hits that you’re taking… we found ourselves firstly, starving, and secondly, just absolutely wrecked.”

Rowe facing Armagh in the 2020 championship.

Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

Training evenings mean convening at the club from 4pm to 10pm, with time dedicated to video analysis, education with coaches and various other meetings alongside skill sessions and a collective group pitch session. Afterwards, there’s food and recovery.

“It’s a long evening, it’s essentially a full days’ work in the evening time so it’s hard for some girls who are working part-time as well,” the Ballina native acknowledges, both parties thankful to have so much time to dedicate to their adopted sport.

It’s all worth it, and more. It always has been, each and every step of the way.

“We say people probably think we’re a bit obsessed,” Rowe smiles.  “Sometimes you have to be.

“You essentially wake up every morning and ask yourself, ‘How can I be a better athlete.’ That means you have to take into account everything in your life; the people, the influences, your strength and conditioning, your nutrition, your mindset. It’s actually hard to switch off from it because there’s so much to consider.”

They can’t stress enough how important mindset has been through it all, finding journaling and goal-setting extremely helpful along the way.

Life at Collingwood certainly has been an adjustment, but a necessary one with psychology and physical preparation certainly further ahead in the AFLW than on home soil.

“Ireland is starting to catch up but I suppose you’re comparing a semi-professional environment to an amateur environment,” Sheridan explains. “We have a psychologist on site with our team, we have our doctor, our trainers, our physios.

“You’re not going to have a psychologist at every county training session, it’s amateur. There is that little bit of difference. You’re training in a club with a gym so you’re able to do your prep for training, you’ve S&C coaches and you can access the club gym on rest days. Everyone can go to the one club gym.

“It’s hard to compare but Australia would be a little bit more ahead.”

Rowe on the ball for Collingwood last season.

Source: AAP/PA Images

Rowe, of course, feels the same, with the psychologist’s input in particular a huge boost when the going gets tough, whether that be due to injury, issues in ones personal life or what not else.

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“If someone comes to training in some kind of mood, you’re taught, ‘You need to leave your feelings at the gate,’ but if you want to be sad, talk to the psychologist or go home and cry about it.

“We’re in a working environment, it’s training focused. You can’t really decide when you want to be happy and sad in that environment but there’s resources outside and pockets when you need it.

“For instance, injuries; that’s a really big challenge for people… rehab, you feel like you’re broken, you’re essentially not important to the team anymore. You go from being a player who’s valued to being a player who doesn’t matter.

“The psychologist plays a huge part, even just having small conversations and helping you change your language around what you’re thinking. It’s just an unbelievable resource that we have, and we’re very fortunate to have it all the time.”

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Sheridan nods furiously beside her, the pair in tune with each and every word they utter. 

Just like the 12 other Irish players on the books of AFLW clubs for the 2021 season.

It all kicks off on 28 January and runs for 12 consecutive weekends until mid-April, with TG4 announcing on Friday that it will broadcast weekly matches and highlights.

“It’s essentially a really short season, every weekend you have a game whereas at home you might have a weekend off,” Sheridan, who came through the CrossCoders programme, nods. “Once the games start, it’s pretty much straight into it.”

And Collingwood are first up on Thursday, opening the season with a highly-anticipated clash with Carlton at Princes Park.

Sheridan facing Donegal in the 2019 Ulster championship.

Source: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

The main goal for both Rowe and Sheridan is to improve both as a team and as players, with the Melbourne outfit hoping to build on their stronger 2020.

“As time goes on, you get more comfortable with the game, you develop,” the former explains.

“At the start, it’s all about learning the game. Ultimately, what Irish people miss, I think, when they come over here is that instinct because we haven’t grown up playing the game. You know where you have an opportunity, it’s like, ‘Do I, don’t I?’ You have a second to think and when you hesitate on that second, the opportunity is gone. You see that in Irish players, thinking, ‘Will I go, won’t I go?’ There’s a lot of that.

“The longer you’re out here, the more you experience, the more game time you get, the more education you get from the coaches, the better that instinct gets. That’s a big focus for us, to keep understanding and educating ourselves more on the game.

“We’d obviously try our best to look after the controllables — the eating, the sleeping, the strength and conditioning and the running. You can control all of that but the game is what we need to zone in on.”

Both deep thinkers and philosophical in their ways at times, they’re happiest when in the thick of deep conversation, challenging and learning form one another. They’re all about looking forward, but often too, it’s important to take stock and reflect on the past.

It’s something they’ve found helpful through the pandemic, taking multiple learnings from 2020 as a whole. Their biggest, to finish?

“To appreciate what you have in your life at all times, and don’t take anything for granted,” Sheridan answers almost immediately. “That was the big thing for me.

Rowe and Sheridan at their Collingwood Guernsey presentation night.

Source: Aishling Sheridan Instagram.

“Over here when we’re in Australia, being able to meet your friends, and then hearing what’s happening at home, you take it for granted. If I was put back into that situation, how would I react?

“Appreciating your surroundings and not taking anything for granted, and then trying to be as positive as possible. I know times are difficult and it’s really hard but trying to look for the best in everything if you can.”

Rowe agrees, casting her mind through the many lessons learned in 2020.

“For me, I’m always very conscious of being present,” she concludes. “It’s a conscious decision you make — if you’re in someone’s company and you decide, ‘Okay, I’m listening to them but thinking about something else.’ Be there, listen to that person. There’s always something to learn from someone else.

“Engage with people, ask people questions; I think you can learn a lot from that. It’s really powerful what it can do for you as well. I think you appreciate the present then, time doesn’t pass you by.”

No matter what it throws at them, neither will let 2021 pass them by. That’s a given.

***

Sarah Rowe and Aishling Sheridan were speaking to The42 on an Instagram Live for Dingle-based gym D-Movement.

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