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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 31 March, 2020

Kerry's Mark O'Connor: 'It's still a bit of a shock to the system but it was always going to happen'

Kerry’s Mark O’Connor on the AFL season being shut down after Saturday’s game with Geelong.

Mark O'Cononr in action for Geelong against GWS Giants last Saturday.
Mark O'Cononr in action for Geelong against GWS Giants last Saturday.
Image: AAP/PA Images

SATURDAY WAS SPENT in Giants Stadium in Sydney for the quite surreal experience of playing  for Geelong in an empty arena.

Sunday delivered the news that Australian Rules had followed the rest of the sporting world and pulled the shutters down.

Yesterday brought talk of pay cuts, the cancellation of team training schedules and deliberations as to whether it was time to board a plane to head home to Dingle. 

That’s a lot to wrap your mind around.

It’s been a whirlwind few days for Mark O’Connor, just another sportsperson coming to terms with the impact of Covid-19 escalating around the world.

When we spoke last night he was still figuring out if it was time to think of a return to West Kerry for a spell. Other Irish players in the AFL had taken that option, Geelong team-mates were dispersing all over Australia, scattered back to their home states.

Issues with quarantine rules, state border closures and flight disruptions were nudging him in the direction of staying put.

The Australian government have today made that decision for him, clamping down further on overseas travel.

So he’ll be based for the foreseeable future in the corner of the world, south of Melbourne, where he has laid down roots since taking up a different sporting adventure back in the winter of 2016.

“A week ago feels like a year ago at the minute with all the different decisions that have come in and the massive changes that have happened in the past few days. I wasn’t sure of the risks of being quarantined in Abu Dhabi and then maybe being quarantined at home for a couple of weeks.

“Then I was thinking when I come back the Victorian borders could be shut so that would be an issue and being quarantined when I come back, which would be for a month. There was just a bit too many risks so I decided to wait it out and stay put.”

Last week was fraught with uncertainty. March is the time for optimism and promise in Australian Rules as a new campaign sweeps into view.

But this time doubt hovered over everything despite the measures of reducing the planned programme of games and closing the turnstiles to fans.

Geelong had to prepare for the trip to Sydney to face GWS Giants and the players tuned their frequency into the prospect of playing in a 24,000 capacity venue full of vacant seats.

afl-giants-cats A general view of the action between Geelong and GWS Giants.

“It was challenging, I’m not going to lie. We had to go in with the mindset of we’re playing and prepare as normal. Probably in our heart of hearts, we didn’t believe it was going to go on for too long. That plays on your mind a bit when you’re trying to get motivated and you know next week’s game isn’t really guaranteed.

“It was very strange. I kind of thought, ‘Ah it’ll be fine, I’ll get used to it after a while’. But it’s just so strange when a goal is kicked and there’s nobody shouting. It was far more impactful than I probably thought it was going to be. It changed the energy of the game, momentum is harder to come by when you don’t have the crowd on your side.

“It’s funny, I was thinking before the game warming up that if you made a mistake, it’s the silence that will hurt a bit more than boos. It was a fear of making a mistake I suppose that it was going to be silent and a bit awkward. You do feed off the crowd, even if it’s subconsciously, that energy of people hopping up and down, and screaming.”

O’Connor grabbed a goal yet Geelong slumped to defeat, 105-73. Stewing over that result was futile once the season was placed in cold storage on Sunday. As odd an experience as it was playing for Geelong, O’Connor felt it must have been weirder for those players who had to feature in the remaining opening round games that proceeded after the news of the postponement.

afl-giants-cats Mark O'Connor in action for Geelong against GWS Giants Source: AAP/PA Images

Still the halting of games was of little surprise. O’Connor had been monitoring how GAA activity had stopped for his former Dingle and Kerry colleagues, saw that sports globally were pulling the plug and felt it was inevitable that Aussie Rules would not plough ahead on their own.

“I was seeing what was coming for us over here when I was looking at what was happening home and in Italy and all of that. It was only a matter of time before the sport was all suspended. It’s still a bit of a shock to the system but it was always going to happen. We’re in it now and we’re just going to have to deal with it.

“It was more a matter of when than whether it was going to be suspended. Australia was kind of lagging behind so it was a bit of a waiting game. The powers that be were just trying to plan to limit the damage as much as anything.”

This is not just a sport for him though, this is his livelihood ever since he embarked on a journey into professional sport. Yet he’s not too downcast, appreciates the current plight others face and retains a healthy sense of perspective.

“Our jobs are reasonably safe at the minute even though the competition is suspended. Especially where I am I don’t have to feed a family or anything, some fellas still have to pay the mortgages, there’s going to be big pay cuts coming. I don’t have a fear at the minute anyway of losing my job. We’re lucky in that sense.

“Everyone’s taking a hit in some shape or form, it’s not really a woe is me kind of thing. Places around are going to struggle, businesses are likely going to go under unfortunately. There’s people doing it a lot worse so we’re not feeling too sorry for ourselves. We’ll just deal with it as it comes and try to fill in the next few months with different activities.

“I’m living with two of the Geelong players, Charlie Constable and Oscar Brownless. They’re both from Melbourne so they might just head up there for a little while and spend time with the family and all that kind of stuff. We’re all going through the same thing, it just helps we’re able to lean on each other that bit.

“It releases any stress that was there a bit. It’s an important time for everyone to just stick together and understand fellas are going through different things. That’s probably the biggest worry on our end, more the mental health and player well being.”

It had been shaping up to be a season where O’Connor could make his mark. He was recently added to the Geelong seven-player leadership group, a signal of his growing stature within the club.

afl-cats-training Mark O'Connor during Geelong's pre-season training.

He made his AFL debut in 2017, was a regular fixture in the team last year and Saturday was his 31st appearance at the elite level for Geelong.

It all doesn’t feel as important now.

They’ll keep their fitness ticking over themselves as the club prepares to shut down and wait for the green light to slip back into the natural rhythms of training and playing.

Whenever that will be.

“Another mini pre-season doesn’t sound great at the minute but we just have to roll with the punches,” laughs O’Connor.

“You do a solid pre season, you play one game and that’s kind of it for a while. The likelihood is that we’ll do more training again before our next few games whenever they may be.

“We’ve a couple players from every state and obviously three Irish boys as well. I think the plan at the minute is for fellas to go home to their own states, they’d like to spend time with their families.

“It all changes so quickly. All the clubs are shut down for the next few weeks anyway. They’re probably coming up with plans now as to how we can train while also keeping up the social distancing guidelines in check. That’s all happening now. It’s very tough to get the head around it all but we’re getting there.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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