Stacey Livingstone (left) and Sarah Rowe are seen during Collingwood's photo day on August 7, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

WHEN Sarah Rowe first arrived in Melbourne in 2018, she gave herself 12 months.

"I actually came out with the intention of being like, 'Well, I'll just do a year and see how I go," the Irishwoman tells of her first pre-season at Collingwood.

"'It's a different sport, I have so much to learn, who knows how long I'll be here?'."


Fast forward to 2023 and that one year has turned into five.

On Sunday, Rowe will become just the second Irishwoman to play 50 AFLW games, following retired Giant Cora Staunton, a milestone that wasn't even a consideration when first she arrived in the country all those years ago.

It's a remarkable achievement for a woman who has also played two other football codes at senior level. But her stint at Collingwood could well have been very different. As her best friend and teammate Ruby Schleicher says, "It could have gone pear-shaped, really".

A chance meeting during Rowe's first visit to the Magpies in 2018, where a teenage Schleicher just happened to be in the gym (and soon after happened to have a spare room at her house for Rowe to move into) led to one of the tightest friendships at the Pies.

Sarah Rowe in action during round one, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"We talk about it a lot ... how lucky are we that you find your best friend, the person that you connect with the most on earth, within the matter of 10 minutes? We've lived together ever since," Schleicher says, before quickly adding, "it's pretty lucky neither of us are psychopaths".

"There's a real sisterly bond between Ruby and I," Rowe says. "We support each other so much, we also challenge each other and when things aren't going our way, we call each other out. But we'd equally have a laugh about everything in the process."

"We have a perfect balance between working hard and playing hard, and she's been such a massive part of my journey.

"I can't imagine my life in Australia without Ruby."

Sarah Rowe presents teammate Ruby Schleicher with her 50th-game jumper on November 06, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

It's not just Schleicher who has been drawn to Rowe, however, with the former sharing that her best mate has a knack of "making men fall in love with her".

"One time a man baked banana bread and dropped it into the club in front of all the girls," Schleicher remembers with glee.

"Well, he gave it to a trainer to drop into the club for all the girls – and that was the end of Banana Bread Boy.

"That story gets a lot of mileage."

While Rowe and Banana Bread Boy are no longer an item, both she and Schleicher want one important fact to be known – it was exceptional banana bread.

The story is an example of one of Rowe's two sides, according to her best friend.

"You've got the joking Sarah, who is the one that I live with. Really easy to be around, my best mate who I can talk to about anything," Schleicher says.

"Then you've got the athlete Sarah, who is meticulous in absolutely everything she does."

Sarah Rowe celebrates a goal during round six, season seven, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

And it is that meticulous, hard-working athlete who is having a career-best season this year, leading the Pies for intercepts and metres gained and sitting second at the club for disposals.

It took a sojourn back to Ireland playing soccer after a tough 2022, which led her to question her career in Australia, to find that form.

"Last year was a really interesting one, because I've never felt that around sport," Rowe says. "I've never lost the interest or the willingness and want to win. I did feel like I lost a part of myself in that, and it was no-one's fault, other than I just wasn't enjoying the game."

"When you're so far away from home, sometimes I think you're like, 'I'm actually just missing a part of myself,' which is my family.

"Sometimes you've got to have separation from something to remember how much you love it and how much you miss it. So, in my head, I kind of broke up with Australia and Collingwood because I needed to find that love again."

Support from the club in her want to switch codes – and countries – during the off-season was important in getting the best out of her this season.

"I was really grateful for the club in letting me go ... they knew me as an individual that (I was saying), 'I promise you, if you let me go and do this, I'll come back and I'll give you everything'. And that's what I feel like I'm trying to do now," she says.

Returning to Ireland and playing soccer hasn't just allowed Rowe to find the separation from footy that she so desperately needed. It has changed her mindset about the Australian game for the better.

"Soccer and Gaelic football are perfectionist games; you want the ball to go from A to B and if it doesn't, you're angry," she says. "Whereas AFL, it's a chaotic game. It's organised chaos essentially ... so I've changed my mindset around what looks good in AFL and what looks good in soccer and Gaelic are two different things."

Another addition to Rowe's game this year has been an increased physicality, which has been noticed by her teammates.

"It's no secret that she's playing the best year of football that she's ever played since coming into the League," Schleicher says.

"The aggression that she's brought into her football this year, she's flipped a switch in her brain. I don't know if it's because of playing soccer or what, but she has brought this aggression into her sport. She's like, 'No, enough is enough. I'm not okay with our team not making it anymore, I'm not okay with us losing'."

Collingwood's Sarah Rowe tackles Geelong's Maddy McMahon during round two, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Rowe has always had a competitive nature and was considered a physical player in both round-ball games, but that hadn't quite translated to the Australian game until this year.

"When I look back at myself as a kid, I was kind of always this way. I remember my parents having to pull me off because I used to get red cards all the time in Gaelic football for acting out," she says.

"I remember my mum being like to me, 'Sarah you can't behave like that. Sometimes you've just got to lose'."

But losing is still not something Rowe is okay with, so she is doing everything in her power this year to reap team success. A huge step towards that was last week's surprise win over Brisbane, which brought the Pies to the fringe of the top eight ahead of Sunday's clash with Carlton.

And in true Sarah Rowe fashion, her 50th career game and the celebrations that will come with it on Sunday  are secondary to what is most important – another Collingwood win.