Pearce Hanley announced his retirement from the Gold Coast Suns and Aussie Rules football at the age of 31 last week. The Irish World’s David Hennessy, who interviewed Pearce twice, looks back at his career through those interviews.
A veteran of 169 AFL games, Mayo’s Pearce Hanley was Ireland’s longest-serving player at the highest level of Aussie Rules until he announced his retirement at the age of 31 last week.
Recruited by Brisbane Lions in 2007, Hanley would make his debut at the age of 19 and go on to establish himself with the Queensland team. After making himself integral to the Lions’ challenge, Pearce was one of their vice-captains before he left in 2016 to join Gold Coast Suns. Although his years at Gold Coast were hampered by injury, he would become one of their leaders also.
Considered one of Ireland’s most successful exports to the Australian sport, only three Irishmen have played more AFL games than Pearce. He also represented Ireland in three series of International Rules.
From the Ballaghaderreen club in Mayo, few realise Pearce was born in England to an Irish father and a Welsh mother.
I interviewed Pearce, once at both AFL clubs he played for. The first time was at a rainy training ground in Brisbane when the team were building up for what would be his last season at the club. The second time was at a sunny Metricon Stadium in the Gold Coast towards the end of the 2019 season when Gold Coast were under severe pressure following a disastrous campaign.
There has been speculation about whether Pearce intends to return to GAA with Mayo and perhaps even emulate Tadhg Kennelly if he could help Mayo end their long wait for an All-Ireland but this looks unlikely from my most recent conversation with him.
In 2016, Pearce said of returning to inter-county football with Mayo: “I can never rule that out. Whether I could do it contract-wise here. It would be hard to break a contract. Plus with the Brisbane Lions and where we’re at, we’re building a team and a culture hopefully that’s gonna play finals.
“Tadhg was lucky enough, they were a finals team every year. They had a good team, he had won his Premiership here, that All-Ireland was on his agenda. While I would like to play one, I would like to win a Premiership with the Brisbane Lions first.
“I could never rule out going home and playing in the All-Ireland with Mayo but at the moment it does look a long way off.”
However, when asked if he still thought about it in 2019, he seemed to have accepted it wouldn’t happen: “Erm, that definitely was a dream when I was younger. I felt like I could have performed and actually help them win an All-Ireland.
“Well, I think that ship has sailed now. I’m 30. Watching the Mayo team now, there’s some great young footballers coming through. Mayo is in their hands now.
“I would have loved to. I was actually very serious about coming back four or five years ago. I was actually having the conversation with my parents. It just didn’t eventuate. Do I have any regrets? No. Would I have loved to have done it? Absolutely.”
We have all heard the story about how Mayo are supposed to be cursed their last All-Ireland win. The team has lost four All-Ireland finals since 2012. Can Mayo break the so-called Curse of ’51? “Yeah, that curse is actually a funny story. I don’t know, I hope so. Hopefully soon. there’s enough Talent in Mayo. They’re always going to be there or thereabouts.
“Unfortunately it does feel like a curse at the moment because they can’t win. Do I buy into that? No. I just think it comes in preparation and training and while they do prepare well, they’ve just been unfortunate in the past.
“They can get to All-Irelands. Hopefully they can just get that final piece of the puzzle next time.”
Having made his debut in the last home game of the 2008 season, Pearce would become indispensable and miss very few games for the Lions from 2011 on. He reached the milestone of 100 games in 2015. Looking back at that on our first meeting, he said: “It was a goal when I set out.
“I guess at the start when I was initially given a two-year contract, I come out to give it a crack so I didn’t think I would be playing 100 back then but as I played more and got more confident, I was hoping to reach the milestone. It is nice to get there and get your name up on the locker at the club.”
Pearce became only the fourth Irishman to play 100 games of AFL joining the illustrious company of Sean Wight, Jim Stynes and Tadhg Kennelly.
“It’s great to be in amongst those names. They have paved the way for me and a lot of the other Irish boys in the AFL now. They kind of showed us all it could be done. It’s great. Tadhg, I grew up watching his tape and trying to emulate his game, try and play like him so it’s great to be in the same sentence as those fellas.”
Coincidentally, Pearce would play his 150th game in April 2019 which was not long before our second chat. He said he would not have seen himself reaching that milestone when he made his debut.
“I definitely didn’t have those expectations of myself back then. I was given a two-year contract and I was looking to play one game and just enjoy myself. I did both in my first two years and I was lucky enough to get another contract and then really knuckle down and found my spot in the team. I would like to be on more. obviously there’s been a lot of injuries over the journey but super proud to achieve 150 games.”
In fact, it says something of how injuries had stopped Pearce finding his rhythm at Gold Coast Suns that Zach Tuohy of Laois had reached 150 before him.
“I know, I’m in some good company there. There’s obviously been a lot of talent come through the ranks in terms of Irish players there’s a lot more to come. There’s a few boys lining it up like Conor McKenna. He’s stealing the show at the moment. He’s doing excellent. There’s been some great players and I’m happy for my name to be a amongst them.”
It looks like Conor McKenna will not play 150 games in the AFL now as he has, perhaps surprisingly, just announced his permanent return to Ireland after six years with Essendon. The Tyrone native’s homesickness has been documented and his announcement, only a week after Pearce’s, makes it two high profile Irish retirements for the game in as many weeks.
Pearce admits to suffering from homesickness early on and says it is not easy to transition from GAA to AFL.
“I think I was lucky. I fit in pretty quick.
“”The club was brilliant. Brisbane Lions were very welcoming. I settled in very quick.
“I had Colm Begley here at the start. He is from Laois, another Irishman. He was good fun, we got on very well. We were good friends and we lived together. He made the transition a lot easier for me.
“I’ve worked very hard on my game. Coming from GAA, I was one of the better players on my team. As soon as I hit Brisbane list, I was pretty much the worst player. I wasn’t used to it. That just drove me to improve and get better each session. From there, I’ve used that, even when I have become a good player, to get better. I think it’s just put down to hard work really.
“While it is enjoyable and you get to play a professional sport, it is hard work and you’re away from your family, you are away from your friends. like I said earlier, I was lucky. I had Colm Begley here.”
Was there ever a frustrating day when he just wanted to go home even for that day because things weren’t working out? “I would be lying if I said I didn’t have it at the start, middle and end of my career. It obviously does happen but you’re here for a greater reason than a hard time you might be going through that day or that week or form throughout the month.
“The bigger picture. You battle through and you stay strong.”
Pearce left Brisbane Lions for the Gold Coast ahead of the 2017 season. It would mean leaving his brother behind. Cian Hanley joined the club as a rookie in 2014 and would have surely broken into the Lions team if he had not decided to return home to Ireland after four years in Australia at the age of 21.
Was it hard to leave Brisbane? “Yes, it was. Obviously Brisbane had done a lot for me. It was hard. I had a lot of good friends there. The joy is I didn’t go too far. My brother was still there. When I wanted to change, I thought obviously the Gold Coast would be the best because it’s still close to him.
“Unfortunately he’s gone home now but I still love it here.
“I left for for my own reasons. I love the Gold Coast. I love The Sons. This is my home away from home now. These blokes are my family now. I love it.
“I love Queensland. I love everything about it so no regrets.”
On the injuries that had hampered his time since making the move, Pearce said: “I haven’t found my form, my Brisbane form, for three years now. I’ve had interrupted pre-seasons and seasons. I haven’t had that continuity but I’ll keep working hard. Our luck will turn eventually. I’m not sitting here feeling sorry for myself and no one else is.
“I’ll just keep working hard and it will turn for me.”
There are more Irish players on AFL lists than at any time in the past. Does Pearce take pride in inspiring the Irish players who are establishing themselves at clubs over there now? “Yeah, absolutely and it’s great to see. There’s so much talent in Ireland. It’s good to see that the clubs are putting their trust in them and bring these boys out and giving them opportunities.
“I looked up to the Jim Stynes and the Kennellys and even Marty Clarke came over and that so so to have those boys look up to me if they do is pretty special.”