Career: 2005 - 2011
Debut : Round 7, 2005 vs Richmond aged 22 years, 50 days
Carlton Player No. 1087
Games : 88 (80 at Carlton)
Goals : 82 (67 at Carlton)
Last game: Semi Final, 2011 vs West Coast, aged 28 years, 183 days
Guernsey No. 17
Height : 198 cm (6 ft. 6 in.)
Weight : 98 kg (15 stone, 6 lbs.)
DOB : 18 March, 1983
In an uplifting story of ambition, talent and national pride, Irish hurling star Setanta O’hAilpin crossed the world to join the Carlton Football Club in 2003. Within two short years, he had achieved his dream of becoming a professional sportsman, and from that time on just kept adding to the rich tradition of Irish players in Australian Football.
The son of a fiercely patriotic Irish father and a Fijian mother from the tiny Pacific island of Rotuma, O’hAilpin was born in Sydney in 1983. Five years later, the family went home to County Cork in Ireland, where Setanta and his tall, athletic brothers Sean Og (Young Sean) and Aisake were educated at a school that taught its entire curriculum in the Gaelic language. Sean senior also insisted that his sons played the Irish national sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football, and all of them grew into outstanding athletes.
In 1999, Sean Og played in an All-Ireland Gaelic Football final at Croke Park before a capacity crowd of 85,000. A week later he won an All-Ireland Hurling final at the same venue in front of another packed house. But because both sports were strictly amateur, Sean Og received no payment at all for his efforts, and had to be up early the next morning to go to work. It was a situation that irritated Setanta greatly, and he became determined to grasp any opportunity to make the most of his sporting ability.
In 2001, Setanta won a minor (under 18) All-Ireland Hurling title with Cork. In 2003 he won the Fitzgibbon Cup (Colleges All Ireland) with Waterford Institute of Technology, and as a result was called into the Cork Senior Hurling Panel. He made his debut against Kilkenny on the 20th April 2003 (playing alongside Sean Og) and impressed enough to merit a starting place in the Munster Championship against Clare. After beating Clare, Cork defeated Waterford for the championship, with Setanta scoring a crucial goal. That put Cork got into the All-Ireland Final against Kilkenny, and although both O’hAilpins played strongly – and Setanta smashed a sizzling goal - Kilkenny triumphed by 3 points. Still, Setanta capped off a great season by being voted Young Player of the Year, and an All Star.
Barely weeks later, Setanta surprised Ireland’s Hurling fraternity by announcing that he intended to return to Australia to accept a position as an International Rookie with the Carlton Football Club. It was a courageous decision, but one made with single-minded intent. Within an hour of his flight touching down at Tullamarine airport in 2004, he was on the training track at Princes Park – about to learn a whole new game in a mostly-foreign land.
At that time, the Carlton Football Club was facing near-oblivion at bottom of the VFL ladder. Heck, even finding a complement of reliable, consistent players was a problem. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the recruitment of O’hAilpin was one of the more unusual methods employed. In Setanta Carlton had found a 198 cm hard-running, elite athlete – now all that was required was to teach him the game!
To his immense credit, Setanta (soon nicknamed ‘Carlos’ after the rock guitar legend Carlos Santana) knuckled down to the task ahead and became a sponge for football knowledge. In his early games for the Northern Bullants he was all at sea, but it wasn’t long before some good judges were commenting on how hard he ran from the first bounce, how he welcomed the physical clashes, and how he rarely lost his feet. The mantra of always creating a contest was drummed into him incessantly, and he learned fast. So fast in fact, that after kicking 7 goals for the Northern Bullants in a VFL match against Williamstown, he was elevated to the primary list to replace the injured Anthony Franchina – a mighty achievement in the circumstances. Late in the year, a foot stress fracture hampered his progress, but he recovered in time to head back home and play for a triumphant Irish side that beat Australia in that season’s International Rules series. During that trip, he also turned out alongside his brothers for their club side Na Piarsaigh, as they won the Cork senior Hurling Championship.
Season 2005 began on a high for the big Irishman. Having changed his Carlton guernsey number from 38 to 17, he knew he was on the brink of senior selection. As well, his younger brother Aisake had also decided to shoot for an AFL career, and had joined Setanta at Princes Park. Aisake was to stay at Carlton for four years, but didn’t manage a senior game and was delisted at the end of 2008. Speaking at that time, Setanta was devastated for his little brother. “Family is everything to me,” he said. “I wanted for him to make it so much. He had the same dream as me, but things didn't go his way.”
All that lay in the future however, when O’hAilpin’s dream finally came to fruition on Saturday, May 7, 2005. Named on the interchange bench for Carlton’s clash against Richmond, he must have floated down the visitor’s race when the Blues burst out onto the MCG in front of 52,000 fans. But from that point on, the game was a nightmare. Trailing by seven goals at quarter time, the hapless Blues were slaughtered by 85 points at the final siren, in one of the club’s most humiliating losses of the decade. One of a very few highlights for Carlton came very late in the game, when Setanta was eventually sent on to the field. After taking a good mark 30 metres from goal, he joined a select group of debutantes by bringing up full points with his first kick.
That was to be O’hAilpin’s only senior appearance that year, and in 2006 Carlton coach Denis Pagan decided that the next stage of the big man’s development would come in defence – a decision that was greeted with more than a little head-scratching by the fans. In a struggling Carlton team, playing down back was a tough gig for anyone, let alone a tyro so new to the game. Still, Setanta’s big-hearted efforts under pressure between rounds 13 and 22 won him plenty of admirers. Although some in the press were stridently doubtful that he had what it takes, an outstanding game at centre half-back against Essendon in round 16 made them reconsider, and his last three matches all produced double-digit stats. He may not have arrived, but he had proven that he could generally match many of the games key forwards - and boy could he run!
Setanta began 2007 with assignments against some of the biggest names in the game - stars like Matthew Lloyd, Matthew Richardson, Jonathan Brown and Fraser Gehrig. Playing a key defensive role in a team that had collected successive wooden spoons, he often lowered his colours, but what endeared him to the Navy Blue faithful was his honesty and never-say-die attitude. In that landmark year for the Carlton Football Club, Brett Ratten took over the senior coaching duties from Pagan in Round 17, 2007 round 17, and O’hAilpin finished off the year in the ruck. In his personal best season to date, the big bloke played all 22 matches, and contributed 13 goals from occasional successful forays into attack.
However, just when his confidence levels were at a new high, injuries and a mystifying brain-snap combined to all but derail his career over the next two years. Amid the excitement of Carlton’s spectacular off-season recruitment of West Coast champion Chris Judd, O’hAilpin began 2008 in good nick. Although troubled by persistent calf pain, he played twelve of the Blues’ first 14 games, until the injury worsened and refused to respond to treatment. Eventually, the club sent him to Germany for specialist treatment, but the cure was a long time coming.
In February 2009, during the third quarter of an intra-club trial match at Princes Park, most players, spectators and media representatives on hand were gobsmacked by an ugly incident between Ó hAilpín and his team-mate Cameron Cloke. As the television cameras whirred, the pair grappled, and words appeared to be exchanged. Setanta then unleashed a big roundhouse left hook that landed flush on Cloke’s jaw, and when the big man crashed to the ground, he was given an old-fashioned "boot in the bum". The cameras caught it all of course, and in a flash, it was all over the news. The club immediately suspended Ó hAilpín, and the matter was eventually placed before the AFL match review panel. Despite the fact that the incident had not occurred in a game for premiership points, the panel took a dim view of the matter, and suspended Setanta for the first four games of 2009. Mortified by his actions, he thought seriously for a while of abandoning the AFL and going home to Ireland, but after serving his time, was talked into staying.
He eventually returned to Carlton’s senior team to play a dozen games in the latter part of the season, and celebrated his 50th AFL match when the Blues edged out Brisbane at the Gabba in round 11. Although the year finished on another sour note when he was omitted on the eve of the Blues’ heart-breaking Elimination Final loss to the Lions, the resulting rumours that he might be on the trade table all came to nought.
In 2010, Setanta found himself regularly up forward again, as Carlton reset their attack in the absence of traded star Brendan Fevola. Stationed at centre half-forward against Collingwood on a Sunday afternoon at the MCG in round 6, he worked tirelessly to provide a scoring option, and kicked five goals in a big loss. Other bags of three and four majors followed, but after his side was smashed by 68 points by the Western Bulldogs in round 15, Ó hAilpín was omitted yet again. And he was unable to regain his place in the side before the Blues’ season ended with another desperately-close Elimination Final loss – this time to Sydney.
In contrast to nearly all his previous seasons, where he played a lot of the early rounds and missed out later, Setanta didn’t get his call-up to the senior side in 2011 until round 6, when the Blues overcame an 18-year hoodoo to beat the Swans in Sydney. Four more matches in succession followed, before an ankle problem forced him out again, and it was a tribute to the enhanced depth of Carlton’s list that he wasn’t recalled until the last game of the home and away rounds.
On that Saturday night at the MCG, Carlton met St Kilda in a match with little at stake. With the finals only a week away, and both teams assured of their place, discretion over-rode valour and the Saints 20-point win was only tepidly celebrated. Still, there were some good efforts in the losing team, like Chris Yarran’s scintillating display off half-back, and Setanta’s four goals from centre half-forward (after starting in defence). That honest effort brought the big number 17 another career milestone the following week, when he was selected at full-forward for his first AFL Elimination Final against Essendon. Switched-on and eager from the first bounce, the Blueboys were never going to lose a third knock-out final in succession, and slaughtered the Bombers by 62 points. O’hAilpín contributed just one of Carlton’s 21 goals, but his 13 possessions and seven hit-outs were almost less important than his constant hard-leading, blocking and tackling.
Setanta (and Carlton’s) reward for that immensely-satisfying victory was an even tougher assignment – a trip across the continent to take on the West Coast Eagles at Subiaco in a cut-throat Semi Final. And it produced one of the season’s great contests. Stationed at centre half-forward, and supporting Robbie Warnock in the ruck, O’hAilpín put in another whole-hearted display as the fast-finishing Blues went down by 3 points in a heart-stopping last quarterShortly afterwards, following seven chequered seasons in which ‘Carlos’ never quite cemented a permanent place in Carlton’s best 22, the club announced that, given the need to create space for the 2011 draft, O’hAilpin had been delisted after 80 games. Making the announcement, Carlton CEO Greg Swann said; “The AFL rules required us to make one more change to our playing list prior to the List Lodgement on October 31st to ensure we have the minimum selections in the 2011 National Draft. Setanta and Paul Bower were the two players out of contract, and after a lengthy meeting this morning, we made this tough decision”.
Not yet ready to quit, O’hAilpin nominated himself for the Draft and it wasn’t surprising when the the AFL’s new entity, the GWS Giants, picked him up with their fourth round selection at number 79. With a young list crying out for experience ahead of their debut season, Giants coach Kevin Sheedy saw Setanta as an ideal role model, and had no hesitation in naming O’hAilpin to play his first game in Giants colours against Carlton in round 6, 2012 at Docklands Stadium.
In another twist of fate, O’hAilpin started well against his former club and kicked two early goals before crashing to the turf with his left knee twisted under him. He had ruptured ligaments in the knee, and the full reconstruction that was required sidelined him for 12 months. He eventually returned to the field and played another seven matches in 2013, but the Giants decided not to renew his contract, and the AFL journey of one of the most popular Blues of the decade finally concluded at 88 games.
FootnotesIn 2014, Setanta and Aisake O’hAilpin were recruited by the Albury Tigers in the Ovens and Murray League, and both brothers had sensational seasons. Playing almost permanently at full-forward, Setanta kicked 116 goals for the year, as Albury beat Yarrawonga by 7 points in a classic Grand Final. At the other end of the ground, another former Blue, Brendan Fevola, kicked six goals in the losing side.
In May 2006, I was holidaying in Ireland and stayed overnight in the small town of Six Mile Bridge not far from Shannon airport. While waiting for a kebab in a take-away shop there was a teenager with a hurling stick. I asked him if I could have a look at it and then asked him if he knew of Setanta. Well, he knew everything about him, his brothers, and the Carlton Football Club!
A few days later I bought the broadsheet newspaper the Sunday Irish Times. There was a two page article on Setanta's brother Sean Og and at least a third of the story was devoted to Setanta and the Mighty Blues!
At a B&B near Donegal the landlady knew of the big Irishman 'Carlos' and Australian Football. Even back then then he was a favourite son of the Emerald Isle.
Milestones50 Games: Round 11, 2009 vs Brisbane
Irish Goal kicking: Round 6, 2010 vs Collingwood - Setanta kicked 5 goals to become the first Irish recruit to do so.
Career Highlights2006 - Past Players' Association Encouragement Award
2007 - Pre-Season Premiership Player
LinksArticles: From Cork to Carlton | Carlton's Irishmen: Zach follows in Freddy's footsteps
Blueseum: Summary of playing statistics for Setanta | Career Breakdown | Image Gallery for the Ó hAilpín brothers