ONE OF the men most knowledgeable about the Gaelic football-to-AFL route wants the AFL to find a way for the 'Irish experiment' to endure.

Nick Walsh was a highly rated Gaelic footballer when he signed with Melbourne in 2001, and he spent three seasons at the Demons, where countrymen Jimmy Stynes and Sean Wight were trailblazers.

He counts himself among the majority of Irish AFL exports who didn't 'make it', with only Stynes (264), Tadhg Kennelly (197), Zach Tuohy (187), Pearce Hanley (161), Wight (150), Setanta O'hAilpin (88), Marty Clarke (73) and Conor McKenna (73) passing 50 games.

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That's out of the roughly 60 Irishmen who have taken the leap and signed an AFL contract.

Others such as Geelong's Mark O'Connor (31), Hawthorn's Conor Nash (19) and Sydney's Colin O'Riordan (16) could join that exclusive club, while the likes of Lion James Madden and Magpie Mark Keane show promise.

Nick Walsh, David Neitz, Adem Yze and Andrew Leoncelli during a pre-season camp in 2002. Picture: AFL Photos

Walsh, who worked at Greater Western Sydney for more than seven years and runs the AFL Coaches' Association's 'Tackle Your Feelings' mental health program, doesn't shy away from those modest numbers.

He helped recruit Hanley and Colm Begley to Brisbane and Cora Staunton and Callum Brown to the Giants but understands it is an expensive project.

"It's been successful to an extent," Walsh told

"What it is for clubs is it's essentially a free pick, because it does sit outside the salary cap.

"When they're looking for that Category B-type rookie, (Gaelic football) is probably the closest game to AFL that they can look to, as opposed to basketball and rugby and all these other games.

"But it probably costs a club in the region of $200,000 if they sign up a kid, with flights and going over there to trial them, so it'll be tough to find that pocket money."

The strike rate on Irish prospects has improved and there's arguably been even greater success in the AFLW, with annual men's and women's combines held in Dublin at the end of each year.

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Both of those are in major doubt for 2020, while the four standout Irishmen chosen from the most recent AFL Europe Combine had their trips to Australia postponed – likely until next year.

Walsh's idea is for clubs to rely more on the combines and the AFL's resources to lessen costs rather than for everyone to do their own thing. 

Brisbane already committed to an Irishman from the last combine, Deividas Uosis, and he was due to join the Lions for the 2021 season.

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Interesting about that move was that AFL clubs could previously have just one Irishman with Category B rookie status but a new rule is set to come in that doubles that number.

That suggested the AFL was trying to encourage clubs to invest more in Irishmen but the increasing discussion about cutting list sizes places that in major doubt.

Young Irish AFL players are already feeling the pinch, with their wage slashed in half during the season shutdown, while several of them – including McKenna – flew home and won't be able to return until border restrictions are lifted.

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As for the 'Tackle Your Feelings' program, Walsh continues to work with community coaches to upskill them on understanding and recognising mental health issues, albeit now in online forums.

"Mental health stats suggest that 20 per cent of the adult population needs some sort of professional help each year, which is relatively high," he said.

"What we've done is put them into footy terms, so if you look at 20 per cent of an adult team, that's four or five players on any given weekend on your magnet board who are potentially dealing with a mental health issue.

"What we hope to do is give these community coaches tools to essentially have meaningful conversations around mental health with players."

Melbourne defender Neville Jetta, GWS coach Leon Cameron and Fremantle captain Kara Antonio are ambassadors for the program.