Lauren Spark was making her mark in the AFL England competition when she was drafted to the Western Bulldogs in 2016.
It was 4am in London when the Bulldogs called Spark’s name out with the 76th selection overall ahead of the inaugural AFLW season.
Spark had donned the red, white and blue stripes for two exhibition matches against Melbourne before moving to London and becoming a pioneer for women’s football overseas.
Spark played for the Wimbledon Hawks and coached the national team the Great Britain Swans before creating the first ever junior Australian Rules football club in London, the Clapham Cubs.
It was after returning home to Australia for the first AFLW season that Spark realised an opportunity for expansion.
With the talent pathway for women’s football in its infancy, the talent pool as the competition expanded would be tested.
“I started to see the expansion and the other clubs getting licenses during that time,” Spark told AFLPlayers.com.au.
After a conversation with close friend and president of AFL England Jason Hill about how more women could become involved in football on an international scale, CrossCoders was born.
“We started these conversations about how we could get more of these girls involved and we saw some of the girls who were playing AFL overseas but it became about more than that,” Spark explained.
It became about identifying and recruiting elite level athletes from cross-code sports who would be suited to AFL.
With contacts already in the United Kingdom it made sense for Spark and Hill to begin their search there.
Jonathan Jeffries and Holly Sinclair joined the organisation to manage the business aspects while Spark and Hill focused on recruiting players.
They made the decision to focus on one area of elite sport, Gaelic football, with the notion that these skills were the most transferable to AFL.
“We did a bit of a social media stalk and approached a few of the girls asking them to send over some footage of basic skills,” she said.
After sifting through applications, CrossCoders settled on 18 athletes who were invited to Australia in September to test their skills in front of AFLW clubs and recruiters.
Following the combine three Irish recruits signed with AFLW clubs.
Ailish Considine was one of those athletes.
Considine, who played Gaelic football and AFL 9’s in Ireland’s mid-west, fell in love with Australian Rules football immediately.
After watching Irish players succeed in the AFL and AFLW the dream of playing professional sport became a possibility for Considine.
In Ireland, the GAA competition, despite its high-level competition, is considered amateur, which became the biggest driver for trying her hand at AFLW.
“It felt like such a huge opportunity and I didn’t really think anything would come out of it but I couldn’t not put my name down,” Considine told AFLPlayers.com.au after her first season in the AFLW.
After testing at the CrossCoders combine in September, Considine signed with Adelaide as an international rookie.
She moved to Australia ahead of the AFLW pre-season commencing in November last year.
Since arriving, Considine has played in seven of a possible eight games and is preparing for the AFLW grand final this Sunday.
Despite becoming a pioneer for Irish rookies in the AFLW, Considine said she was happy to be given the opportunity to train in an elite environment.
“Being here and getting to train in this environment and live the professional athlete lifestyle was enough for me,” she said.
“I didn’t expect to play any games this year at all if I’m really honest, but to actually get to play games has been an absolute dream come true.”
Spark, who has played 21 of a possible 22 AFLW games across three seasons, has acted as a mentor for the athletes in the CrossCoders programs.
“That’s been my whole role in all of this,” Spark said of her mentoring.
“I know what it’s like and I can speak about the competition and the standards and expectations of what it’s all about.”
Considine said having Spark on the journey with her was beneficial to understanding the significant jump required to succeed in the AFLW.
“It gave us the chance to ask what it is actually like to be an AFLW player and what it takes, and an insight into what it is like to try and make it over here,” she said.
With four more clubs entering the AFLW competition in 2020, CrossCoders is looking to expand their program to the US and further into Europe this year.
Following the season, Spark is travelling to Ireland to run a three-day intensive camp where more athletes will be tested ahead of the AFLW signing period.
“We’re going to keep campaigning and crusading to get more girls over from whichever sport and whichever country that may be to bring those elite behaviours from their own sports to the AFLW.”
You can find out more about the CrossCoders program here.