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Life Down Under

'People are saying ‘Wake me up when it’s 2021'' - Colin O'Riordan's strange season in Sydney

The Tipperary native and his Sydney Swans team-mates have had plenty to contend with this year.

A QUARTER OF the way in and the question in Sydney is what other altering events does the city have to brace itself for in 2020?

For Colin O’Riordan and his Swans team-mates it has been a year that has veered sharply off the predicted script.

If they wanted to focus on Australian Rules action on the pitch, life off it has intruded to disrupt those plans. January saw Sydney engulfed by a blanket of smoke, a product of the bush fires that raged across New South Wales.

The respite was brief with March dominated by the chaos and uncertainty and worry generated by the Covid-19 crisis that has impacted Australia like everywhere else.

“It’s been a pretty hard year for everyone here,” says O’Riordan.

“You can just imagine how the families in those homes that were devastated down the coast feel now. We didn’t have much of a summer, there was blue skies but you couldn’t see them because the smoke absolutely consumed the city. There was days we couldn’t train because of the smoke.

“Pre-season is a slog at the best of times and then you’d this on top of it. You’re going into training and the smoke is there, you can taste it in the back of your throat. You’re wondering if you can train and suddenly it improves a little bit and you go out for a little bit.

“Then drills are cut short as they’re saying we can’t do it all, we have to come back in. It just created that massive uncertainty amongst everything. The whole year seems to have been that way.”

If the preparations for the 2020 AFL season were strange, then the build-up last week to the opening games also jarred.

“We couldn’t all train together,” outlined the former Tipperary senior player.

“We had six groups of eight that trained at separate times throughout the day. The first group trained at 8am and from then on it was every hour and a half. You couldn’t mix with the group before you. It was a bit different but we made it work.

“Last Wednesday at 5pm we didn’t know were we going to be playing Saturday. There was just a lot going on, it created more uncertainty. They announced Round 1 was going ahead, we’d no choice but to knuckle down and concentrate and try to get the win. We’d a job to do.”

The Sydney Swans contingent flew to Adelaide last Friday night to take on the Crows on Saturday but it wasn’t easy to treat it as a normal game with all that was going on elsewhere.

“We went down to Adelaide the night before, the Friday. We weren’t sure what was going to happen with travel so they put us on a chartered flight and couldn’t mix with anyone. We were trying to stay free of the thing. Straight from the plane to the hotel, straight into the rooms and back to the stadium the day after. There was no outside interactions, it was really contained.”

Chiselling out their 74-71 success was rewarding with O’Riordan, who signed for the club in 2015 and has made rapid strides over the past couple of years, heavily involved in a game that unfolded in front of empty stands.

afl-crows-swans AAP / PA Images Colin O'Riordan (third from front on right) with his Sydney Swans team-mates at the Adelaide Oval last Saturday. AAP / PA Images / PA Images

“All the lads were talking about going down that Adelaide is this hostile environment and the atmosphere down there is electric. It was my first time playing there. You run out on the field and then there’s no one there. From an away team’s point of view it’s not too bad in a sporting point. It was strange, it was unique and something you can look back to say you played in front of no one at the Adelaide Oval and got the win.”

They were in ebullient form at their hotel base that night before flying home early Sunday morning. Then came a relentless wave of issues to deal with – the league postponement, wage cuts and travel bans.

“I decided to stay put, didn’t want to take the risk of international travel, then going home and contaminating someone. I’m going to stay put and ride the wave here. I don’t think it would have been right to go home at this time, maybe last week it would have been alright. It’s not possible now anyway with the ban on travel.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty now. We’re hearing talks of perhaps 79% pay cuts for the rest of the year. The cost of living in Sydney is high enough without trying to live off a wage of 21% of what you’re usually on. You see figures saying whatever the average wage might be but that’s inflated by a few high earners. It’s the same as any (industry).

“Look it’s a unique situation we’re in, probably gives everyone a chance to have a bit of a reflection on what they actually value and the things that are really important to them. That’s the health and safety of everyone in your life and the people around you. It brings it back to the simple message that your health is your wealth. That’s the main thing.”

Throughout all the drama of the past few months, the Sydney Swans have provided the players with strong support and there’s a close-knit Irish group to help through the coming weeks of inactivity.

afl-swans-bombers AAP / PA Images Colin O'Riordan in action for the Swans last year. AAP / PA Images / PA Images

“The club have been fantastic, the health and safety of the players has been number one priority. We can’t say any more highly with the club. With Barry O’Connor from Wexford it’s nice to have another Irish player there. We’ve a few lads working there as well.

“We’ve Tadhg Kennelly, we’ve the strength and conditioning coach in Mark Kilgannon from Cork and Stephen Kelly is the assistant strength and conditioning coach, he’s from Dublin. There’s five of us there, five Irish lads. Look we’re all going through it together, we can pull each other in.

“If anyone needs anything, everyone’s around, there’s that real connection there to help each other out. That’s massive to have that reassurance, people here with the same background who can’t go home and are in the same boat.”

rob-kearney-sean-cronin-quinn-roux-tadhg-furlong-robbie-henshaw-and-john-ryan-with-tadhg-kennelly-and-colin-oriordan Dan Sheridan / INPHO Colin O'Riordan (second left) with Tadhg Kennelly and members of the Irish rugby team in 2018. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Collective training sessions ground to a halt earlier this week and now it’s about adjusting to an individual routine.

“We were lucky that the club delivered us gym equipment. Everyone who stayed in Sydney, about 10-15 boys. Some of them have families and some are just younger boys like us that have opted to stay here. The club have been great. They loaded up a van yesterday and got all the watt bikes and gym equipment and gave it to everyone individually.

“So everyone pretty much has a homemade gym in their house which is great and you can do your workouts from home. It was a big task for them to undertake but everyone can keep the fitness up and the strength up. When the green lights comes, we’ll be ready to rock.”

The year has plenty at them already. Another challenge to deal with now.

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