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'It's a pretty dark experience to have to go through when you're so far away from home'

After being released by St Kilda, a new Australian Rules adventure begins for Westmeath native Ray Connellan.

Essendon is the latest stop in Ray Connellan's sporting journey.
Essendon is the latest stop in Ray Connellan's sporting journey.
Image: INPHO

RAY CONNELLAN SAW the end coming.

When the news was delivered to him on a Tuesday morning last August in Melbourne, the jolt to his system was not as stark.

The sporting way of life he had grown accustomed to was concluding but he had surveyed the scene beforehand and figured he was not going to be a fixture in St Kilda’s plans for much longer.

It was just over two years since the 24-year-old had signed on the dotted line to swap life in Athlone for one in Australia, switching codes from Gaelic football to Australian Rules.

The clock had been ticking on his two-year contract and by that morning at the club’s training base in Moorabbin, his hopes of getting a renewal had dwindled.

“I arrived in on a Tuesday morning for training. It was going to be a good skills session on the field and just before the team meeting, the head of list of management, Tony Elshaug asked me could he see me in his office at 11.

“I knew then. There was only one reason he’d want to talk to me and It probably wasn’t going to be good news.

“I remember saying to Darragh Joyce (St Kilda’s Kilkenny native) that Tony’s after calling me in to a meeting. He was asking me did I think I was going to be getting a new contract and I was saying I think I’m getting the boot.

Darragh Joyce lifts the cup Darragh Joyce lifts the All-Ireland minor football trophy in 2014.

“Darragh was reassuring me, I’d probably just came off one of my best games against Richmond. But as soon as I saw the vibe when I walked in, I just knew that it wasn’t going to be good news.

“With how much I’d invested in it physically and mentally, there was no easy way to tell me that I was going to be let go. The way they did it was probably the best they could.”

The club had opted not to let the situation drag on. They knew the absence of a new contract offer for Connellan was going to cause a seismic shift in his life with a return to Ireland in the offing.

It was felt it was best to cut ties and present him with the opportunity to set himself up for a move home.

And while he appreciated that sentiment and had forecast the decision, the announcement was still a blow that wounded him.

“It’s a pretty dark experience to have to go through when you’re so far away from home. I remember just leaving the club after, drove home and was back in the apartment by myself. It was probably as dark a day as I’ve had now for a while.

“I was thinking that it was all done, it was over and I just had to get used to whatever happened next. It’s such an unknown. You don’t know what lies ahead for you.

“You invest so much into it that it’s kind of who you are. Then in the space of a 20 minute meeting, your identity is kind of taken from you a little bit. It’s a bit embarrassing and not really a pleasant experience at all.”

The year had not been one of straightforward development on the pitch.

He had initially impressed scouts at the AFL Europe Talent Combine trials in DCU back in 2015 and was snapped up by St Kilda at the same time as they secured the services of Joyce, a Kilkenny All-Ireland minor winning hurling captain.

Then prior to the move his progress was derailed in the summer of 2016.

Gracing Leinster final day with Westmeath against Dublin was a milestone in his GAA career but suffering a double leg break in Croke Park that day was not a prospect he had envisaged.

St Kilda were happy for him to fly out and face the road to recovery under their watch, by the time the 2017 season swung around he was grappling with an alien game and lining out for their affiliate club Sandringham in the Victorian Football League.

With the first year of learning lodged in the bank, he had lofty ambitions in mind for year two but the 2018 season did not unfold smoothly.

“Just as the pre-season was ending I tore my quad coming into the first game of the year. I was only out for about 10 days but that just messed me up for the first game and then had probably about four or five weeks where, I’m not really sure why, my form just dropped off quite a bit.

“I was very poor. I think the third game we played was against a team called Port Melbourne. I remember that was probably the worst game I’d played since I got to Australia.

“I got a nice talking to off the second team coach who was just kind of like, ‘Look if you’re performing like that, you’re looking at the door’.

“I think that kind of lit a fire under me. I ended up going and chatting to a few people in the club, coaches and seeing what did I need to do to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

“From then on, there pretty much wasn’t a day that I wasn’t in the club, whether we had training or not. I was just in there working my arse off and trying to improve.

“Then I started to come into some really great form. I would have expected to be looked at to be playing senior football. I was playing the best football I’d played since I go there. But for whatever reason, the chance just never came.

“In my first year I played some reasonable games, based on athletic ability, and was almost in contention for a first-team selection in my first year. Then in my second year I was probably playing far more consistent and far better football but seemed further from getting a first team game.

“The frustration was building as the year was going on. Then for the last three or four weeks, I saw the writing on the wall.”

Facing sporting rejection and trying to pack up his life before boarding a plane added to the bleakness he felt.

But he had a sanctuary he could fall back on and support came his way.

“I was in touch with family in the weeks leading up to it and told them I didn’t think things were going to work out. Last minute my brother John just booked a flight to Australia.

“He arrived out the day I lost the contract. That was actually great timing. Soon as he arrived over, we went out for a few pints and drowned the sorrows. He couldn’t have timed that better.

John Connellan John Connellan in action for Westmeath in 2016.

“That’s something I’ll always be grateful for that he did that. He helped me sort out my affairs over there and get ready to go.

“I played my last game then that following weekend, which was pretty tough and got back home to Ireland three or four days after that.

“My parents were so supportive and so kind. They were a massive help. They didn’t put any pressure on me to sort anything out.”

At home in Athlone he slipped back into the way of life. Lining out in the Westmeath club championship. Headed up to Dublin to Robbie Henshaw, his old school-mate in Marist College that had continued to shine in rugby circles during Connellan’s time in Australia.

“It was nice to be back amongst friends who you know, regardless of what you do for a career, don’t really give a shit. They were just happy for me to be home.

“My mates made fun of me about it, it’s just the way we do it. That makes it easier. If we’re going out for drinks, the boys will be asking am I sure do I want to get a round. It’s a good way of doing it. Make light of a bad situation.

“The first few weeks I was home, I was up in Rob’s house nearly every day. It was handy just being up in Dublin, a lot of my friends are based in Dublin now.

“He’s recently bought a new house and had a spare room so I was able to jump in with him for three or four days a week, chill out in Dublin, settle down and find my feet again.”

Robbie Henshaw is tacked by Nick Phipps Robbie Henshaw during last summer's Test for Ireland against Australia.

He was trying to figure out the next step when a sporting curveball was pitched in his direction.

“I was on a night out with Conor McKenna (the Tyrone AFL player with Essendon) in Dublin. No one in Australia knew we were together and he just got a message asking did he know Ray Connellan.

“The two of us were laughing and it was actually someone from the VFL programme in Essendon. He was asking why I was let go from St Kilda. Conor said it was no reason really, I was just let go. They said if he wanted to get in touch and was interested in playing VFL again. So through that we passed on, we exchanged details and I got in touch with a guy called Ashley Brown, the head of the VFL programme there.

Conor McKenna Essendon AFL player Conor McKenna Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We just spoke, he asked me where I was at, from a personal point of view how I was feeling. Then what was my position in going back to Australia playing for Essendon. I said I was willing to give it another shot. Then it just went from there.”

The door had also been opened by Westmeath to pave a way for him back into the county game.

“As soon as the season was done with Athlone and we were out, I just needed a break. I was worn out. I got a call off Jack Cooney. He asked me where my head was at and what I was thinking. At this stage I’d already spoken to Essendon.

“I just let him know that I’d most likely be heading back to Melbourne. He was sound, he said he hoped it goes well for me and that if I was back early or it didn’t work out, I was welcome back in. He was great. He just wished me all the best.”

Jack Cooney after the game Westmeath boss Jack Cooney after Friday night's O'Byrne Cup final.

Before Connellan decamped first to the other side of the world, he was studying in NUI Galway. He’s not eligible for a third-level return until next September if he wishes. Another shot at Australian Rules in a city he is well acquainted with made sense.

He’ll fill the role of a semi-pro, juggling VFL duties with Essendon with a job the club will set up for him. He’s set to move in with Hawthorn players, Meath’s Conor Nash and Derry’s Conor Glass.

Christmas at home and then a January flight back to Melbourne. Things have fallen into place.

“I’ve got nothing to lose. I can’t go back to college until September anyway so I may as well go out and give it a rattle until then.

“I’ve kind of experienced the worst part of it. I’ve invested a lot into it. If this works, I’ll be grateful for myself for just going and chancing it. But if it doesn’t at the same time, I haven’t actually set myself back more than I am at the moment. I’m more than happy to just go back over and give it another try.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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