Returning AFL star Sarah Rowe: 'One of the things I feel will happen after all of this is that it will give us all a new appreciation and new perspective on life'

Tue, Mar 24 2020

Rowe pictured during her Castlebar Celtic days in the Women's National League. Credit: Peter Fitzpatrick (ETPhotos)

It has been an extremely busy and quickly changing few days for 20x20 ambassador Sarah Rowe as she attempts to adapt and come to terms with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Mayo native was forced to cut short her time in Melbourne with AFLW club Collingwood after the season was brought to a premature end due to the spread of the virus.

The final two games of the regular season were scratched as the league sought to bring the season to a quick conclusion before it was formally cancelled on Sunday.

The entire community involved within the AFL at all grades had initially begun feeling the effects earlier in the week.

For Sarah and her Collingwood teammates, they knew things were starting to get serious when they arrived off the plane to play Brisbane ten days ago.

“Everything was fine up until last weekend and we flew over to Brisbane,” Rowe tells extratime.ie.

“We played Brisbane over there but we were only told the day before the game, and after we had arrived, that it would be behind closed doors. Families had flown over especially for it too.

“It was crazy. Families were already over in Brisbane. People were ringing their parents at the very last minute to tell them it would have to be watched from a bar or wherever they could get it.

“Everybody was disappointed but we as a team just had to adapt straight away.

“Our thoughts were that it's not ideal but it's happening all over the world and we just need to adapt to whatever changes come our way and deal with them as positively as we can.

“During the game we weren't allowed to high five or celebrate or anything like that. Now, it's a full-contact sport so you are going to be tackling and coming into contact with the other players but that was strictly the extent of it.

“We played the game with no crowd as well and with this particular fixture it would normally draw a great crowd so it was quite weird.

“We had to rely on our communication and our own voice to get our message across and to make sure we could pick each other up, versus having the crowd to be that extra person for you especially when things may not be going too well in a game.

“We ended up winning the game and went home and it all started to break then early in the week with so much different news reports etc and an increasing number of cases too.”

Gratitude

When extratime.ie first spoke to Sarah on Friday morning, the Mayo native was reflecting on how grateful she was to still be able to do what she loves amid the worldwide decimation of sport at every level.

Sarah and her teammates at Collingwood were preparing for what would be another unusual fixture that afternoon against North Melbourne in the AFLW.

This was the second fixture in a matter of days that would be played in unusual circumstances. The same restrictions applied but there had been another significant development in the days leading up to the game.

A number of Sarah’s friends and compatriots who have also been plying their trade in the AFLW had taken the tough decision to begin the journey back to Irish soil.

Katy Herron (Western Bulldogs – Donegal), Aisling McCarthy (Bulldogs – Tipperary), Joanne Doonan (Carlton Blues – Fermanagh), Sinead Goldrick and Niamh McEvoy (Melbourne Demons – Dublin) all flew home last week.

In what was a real show of support and solidarity, twelve of the Irish girls playing in the AFLW, including Sarah, met for breakfast last week.

They shared their thoughts and worries about the situation and displayed a real sense of support and understanding towards each other no matter what decision each would go with in the end.

“We all met up for breakfast and it was so nice to have us all there together. Any time we meet up it's just so lovely, we have great chats and all talk about the same things.

“While we are all competitors on the field of play, we are all in the same boat in terms of being away from family, etc so we all support each other which is very important and really nice.

“We all want to see each other do well despite being on opposing teams. We all explained how we were feeling and also what our worries and circumstances, etc were and supported each other.

“At the end of the day each of us had to make a decision based on what we felt was best for ourselves.”

For Sarah, she had taken the decision to remain in Australia for the time being and focus on the fixture against North Melbourne on Saturday afternoon.

The 24-year-old was well aware of the seriousness of the situation and was following the public guidelines like all others.

But with the AFLW deciding to press ahead with the fixtures, subject to daily review, she was happy to continue to focus on the Melbourne fixture and to do what she could to look after herself.

As well as breakfast with her friends and teammates, there was also plenty of interaction with different groups involved within the AFLW.

It was a week like no other for the AFL and AFLW season’s, with plans and statements changing on the hour.

Instead of playing their seventh regular-season fixture against St Kilda, Collingwood were instead thrust straight into a semi-final against city rivals North Melbourne.

“There was talk of our season not going ahead and the men’s season continuing, and then there was talk as well of just the top two teams playing straight off in the final.

“We had meetings ourselves with the AFL over the phone just to try and figure out what we might do.

“We were all sitting in a room on a conference-type call going back and forth with questions and also doing surveys as to what the group of players wanted. The majority voted to just play on the season and see how it goes.

“My view on it was to continue the season as is and take each day as it comes which would have meant we were playing St Kilda this weekend.

“I just thought we should play on and take it day by day and manage the situation on an ongoing basis but for the moment I was happy to play on and manage it very carefully.”

Sport

Rowe has been immersed in sport from a very young age and could have easily gone down the soccer path before she got to an age where she had no choice but to pick one.

On the international stage, Sarah donned the green jersey at every age grade from under-15 all the way up to senior level.

On the club front, she pulled on the jersey on numerous occasions for Ballina Town, Castlebar Celtic, Raheny United and Shelbourne.

She then made the choice to focus on her GAA career and, more recently, has plied her trade in Australian rules football with Collingwood in the AFLW.

Quite a few of the current senior internationals involved with Vera Pauw’s side are good friends of Rowe’s and she is delighted to see them doing so well and representing the country so proudly.

“It makes me so proud to see some of my best friends progress and doing so well now, the likes of Katie McCabe, Clare Shine and Chloe Mustaki.

“We were all on that on that Irish under-19 side that beat England, Spain and Sweden and it was a really special group.

“After that I progressed into the senior side and got five caps myself but that was when it was getting to such a serious level that realistically I needed to make a decision between both.

“It was getting to the stage where I was training every night of the week with college sport and Mayo too.

“I loved soccer and how much I learned from it but GAA is my first love. I would love to go back at some point down the line but for now I’m happy in what I’m doing.”

North Melbourne

"We were very surprised – I am actually so grateful that it went ahead,” Sarah said shortly after Saturday’s 34-32 semi-final defeat to North Melbourne.

“We all just love it so much. Even a few days ago it wasn't certain that it would go ahead and honestly I just don't know myself without sport but thankfully this weekend we got to play.

“Regarding the game itself we were given strict instructions and quite similar to last week when we travelled to Brisbane.

“We aren't allowed be in a huddle with each other, we aren't allowed high five or celebrate, we all had to have our own water bottles.

“Apart from tackling and the physical contact of the game itself, there was to be no contact whatsoever.

“The fixture itself was also played behind closed doors again with no crowd or family allowed to attend whatsoever.”

Things are slowly but surely ramping up in Australia in terms of their plans to fight the Coronavirus but they weren’t yet at the severity levels of other countries around the world.

“At the moment some schools are open, some are closed. The government haven't told the schools they have to close, it's up to the schools themselves.

“There are to be no more meetings outdoors of more than 500 people and inside no more than 100 people allowed to meet.

“It is going to spread but in terms of the overall population of Australia it is only at the early stages so far.

“For me I'm not in any way panicked, there's no point in me fearing something now that may not happen for a few weeks, I'll deal with it when it comes.

“For a day or two I was thinking about it quite a lot and wondering to myself what is going to unfold but once the AFL were happy for us to continue to play as well and manage it carefully.

“In six weeks’ time it could be worse out here and I could be trapped out here but if that happens, we'll just have to do what everyone else in the world is doing and follow guidelines.

“We are all in the same position and we'll all get over it together. It really makes you appreciate life and what you have a bit more too and embrace what you have.

“Sport is such a huge part of my life right now and I'm just extremely grateful that I get to play any bit of sport at all right now.”

Coming home

Unfortunately, in the space of just a few days, and in what is a perfect example of how unpredictable and fast-moving the current circumstances are, the remainder of the AFLW season was cancelled.

The men’s AFL season has also been suspended until May as a result of the ongoing circumstances and events unfolding across the world.

Sarah explained that, following their return from Brisbane, things escalated at a frightening pace and, although there is huge disappointment, she knows it is the right call.

“We found out when we were all together two days after the game and saw it announced on Twitter that the season had been cancelled.

“I wasn’t really surprised to be honest. My gut feeling with how things have been going the last few days was that the season wasn’t going to finish.

“We were happy on Saturday and earlier in the week to continue and constantly review the situation but since then things are moving so quickly in the past few days with regards to the virus.

“Things are starting to close down without delay and we are in the height of it now. People are rushing around the place trying to get things done.

“It’s very surreal and no one can really believe what is happening. It’s something you can never really prepare yourself for.

“It is disappointing that the season has been cancelled and, while you would take a Premiership any day of the week, you also want to celebrate games with your family and friends and your teammates.

“If you had reached that situation and ended up playing in a Premiership final with no crowd and no atmosphere it wouldn’t be as special at all and wouldn’t be the way we all would have dreamed of it being like.

“It would have been tainted slightly. It was the right call at this stage, everyone’s health and safety has to be the priority with the level it is getting to in such a short space of time.”

It may be an interesting and roundabout trip home but, with the disruption and uncertainty in how the past week has unfolded, no doubt Sarah Rowe will see it as a challenge she needs to deal with professionally and with a firm focus and calmness towards the goal ahead.

That’s something she is well used to doing on the field of play be it in the green and red of Mayo or for her current club Collingwood.

“My flight is booked for today at five o clock but there’s been a lot of commotion with Emirates flights being cancelled every few hours and borders are closing as well very quickly.

“The flight could potentially go ahead this evening but there is also the possibility that I rock up to the airport and it could be cancelled. It’s just one of those things that I will just have to wait and see about.

“I also won’t believe I am going to get home until I land back on Irish soil because we could get as far as Abu Dhabi and could get stuck there too.

“I’m confident this will all get better and I think it’s so important that people keep the faith through the whole thing.

“At the end of the day if I get trapped out in Oz for the next few weeks or months, even without sport, there’s worse things in life and a lot of people all over the world are in far worse situations than I am at the moment.

“It wouldn’t be ideal but I would have to make the best out of whatever situation I am going to find myself in.

“One of the things I feel will happen after all of this is that it will give us all a new appreciation and new perspective on life.

“I think it will change a lot of people and also people’s ways of how they go about their life on a daily basis.

“Over the last few days it has made me really appreciate the little things in life and things that we possibly take for granted.”

“At the moment the latest update as of just last night is that flights have been cancelled and redirected to Hong Kong and then on to London and then home so fingers crossed I can get home in the next day or two!”

The AFLW adventure has been paused for the moment for 20x20 ambassador Sarah Rowe but what a role model she is showing herself to be even during times of uncertainty, fear and panic.

Here’s hoping we see her lining out for Mayo in the summer months to come.