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Resilient Colin O'Riordan showed what it takes to make it as an Irish player in the AFL
Tipperary’s Colin O’Riordan was forced to call time on his AFL career this week due to a chronic hip injury.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 4th 2022, 12:11 PM

THE WARNING WAS stark. A 15-year-old Colin O’Riordan was sat in front of Dr Pat O’Neill in the Mater and told in no uncertain terms that he had to dial it back. His hips and playing career depended upon it.

“If you keep going the way you are going; you won’t be able to play anymore by the time you are 21.”

He made it to 26 before cruelly being forced to call time on his AFL career. The hip got him in the end.

He was an underage sensation. A Tipperary revelation. An All-Ireland minor medal winner in both hurling and football, O’Riordan was just 15 when they beat Dublin in the 2011 minor football decider.

colin-oriordan-lifts-the-trophy Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

At one point during his first year in UCD, he was involved with ten different teams. Leaving Dublin at 4pm to head for Tipperary training and getting back at 12.30am that night. A gruelling routine carried out four times a week.

Was it Australian Rules that led to his retirement? Or was the damage done long before then? Since moving to Australia, he often highlighted his concerns about GAA burnout. Not for established players, for those underage playing at a high level.

The hip and groin issues subsided for much of his stint in Sydney. Exposure to a full-time environment with two full-time doctors, four physios and an army of sports scientists helped prolong his playing career. The issue flared up again in 2018 and he visited Enda King, then the Head of Performance Rehabilitation at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry.

King recently moved to a FIFA-accredited centre of excellence in Doha ahead of the World Cup but before he did, he published a research study on hip and groin pain prevalence and prediction in elite Gaelic Games.

It monitored 2703 male athletes across two seasons, the largest study in elite athletes relating to hip and groin pain internationally.

It should be alarming. The paper needs to be the foundation of a drastic overhaul and a reminder of the damage done when young athletes are stretched across multiple teams.

No matter how many conversations physios and coaches have about load, despite seismic shifts in sports science and rehab strategies, the injuries keep happening because that core problem has never been sufficiently addressed.

This should not be the takeaway of O’Riordan’s AFL experience, just a theme within it. What he achieved was extraordinary. Ever since he received a phone call in Dundrum while shopping with his girlfriend, the Swans dominated his thinking.

He was determined to be a success. Consumed by it.

colin-oriordan Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

His father, Michael, wouldn’t have it any other way. The motto was always hard work before anything else. Michael played for Tipperary and later managed the Gardai College football team.

As a child, O’Riordan’s playground was that dressing room. He looked in awe at one particular player. A man who spoke little but trained like a demon and emptied himself every single day.

Later, when the midfielder returned during Covid and helped Tipperary to their first Munster football title in 84 years, one of the surrealist moments was logging onto Twitter and seeing that same player praising his performance.

”This man’s Dad trained me in the Garda College football team. A character, a very straight-talking man and he always wanted to win. Apple didn’t fall far,” said five-time Kerry All-Ireland winner Aidan O’Mahony.

“I just saw him doing little things here and there that was a cut above a lot of fellas around the country,” recalls then Tipperary selector Paddy Christie.

“He would do things on the pitch, working on his own game very early before other people were out.

“He would ask questions looking for feedback and things that really good players do. He wasn’t doing those things to let you know how great he was, he was doing it because he actually meant it.”

Irish AFL recruits brought Down Under follow a familiar path. A big fish from a small pond suddenly dropped into the ocean. At the top in a country of five million, now starting from the bottom in a continent of 25 million.

They’ve never played the game before and this is a league with 880 other players. Now the task is to compete with every one of them. Elite athletes who have played since they could walk. An Irish player moves across the sea to a new land and is expected to rapidly run.  

2,000 touches a day, O’Riordan rationalised. That is what it would take. If he was constantly working with the ball like that for a year, it would equate to over 700,000 touches. An arduous way to catch up with the Aussies.

His goal was to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Not just tolerating pain, revelling in it. It was a mini victory if he went so hard that it made him sick. Spend so much time in the red zone that you’d make it a personal blue zone.

Coaches were conscious of his bottomless appetite for graft. Many young prospects need encouragement to do more, with O’Riordan it was always a challenge to make him do less. His calling card was that he would never be outworked. It helped him become a dog of a defender.

afl-swans-suns AAP / PA Images AAP / PA Images / PA Images

It’s not about individual stats, former Swans coach John Blakey used to explain. It’s about doing your role for the benefit of the team. No better man. Culturally it was a perfect fit. He embraced the Bloods culture, bought into the collective frame of mind.

The punishment sessions for small misdemeanours, the direct feedback, the housing projects grouping rookies with more senior pros, so small in the grand scheme of things but a domino effect in a high-performance environment where if one element slides it can all come tumbling down.

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O’Riordan embodied that and was respected for it. When he went to the club to ask for permission to play for Tipperary in 2020, he decided to write out precisely why it meant so much. There were mentions of 1916, the commemorative jersey and his family.

Before approaching the club’s hierarchy, he went to the player leadership group.

He wanted GAA outsiders to understand what it means. When three-time All Australian and club captain Josh Kennedy received the message, he immediately called O’Riordan and said he was tempted to play himself. With the player’s backing, he went to the coaches and was quickly told he can play.

“Thank you for taking the chance on a young kid from the other side of the world who had never kicked an oval ball before.

“You gave that kid an opportunity to live out his childhood dream of playing professional sport. As a club you went out of your way to learn and understand how much my background, culture and upbringing meant to me,” O’Riordan wrote on social media this week.

“Allowing me to represent my county at home summed up everything that is so special about the club and what they stand for. The player as a person comes before the athlete.”

Unfortunately, professional sport is not an outright meritocracy. You can do all the work. Prove your value. Excel in the 12km pitch sessions, be out in front for four-kilometre sand dune runs, devour analysis sessions and take your chance when it comes but that’s all secondary to one crucial currency; luck.

34 games is no mean feat but he should have played more if not for the cruel twist of fate. In 2021, several Irish players attended a rugby international in Australia and were deemed close contacts, meaning they had to quarantine.

O’Riordan was minutes from taking to the field having established himself in their back six when he was told he had to tog in and immediately return to a hotel room.

Because he had crossed state lines after the game, his quarantine period was doubled, ruling him out for three games. When he finally returned, he faced another fight for his spot.  

2022 looked destined to be his best year yet. Then in the March VFL season opener, he was poked in the eye and sidelined for weeks so his vision could clear. He returned to the reserve side and in May enjoyed a spectacular performance against Werribee that included 32 disposals and the best rating on ground.

That form was rewarded with a run of starts with the seniors, until a first-quarter tackle against Geelong in June saw him taken off with a concussion.

Then the hip flared up and the pain refused to yield. The wonderful and brutal world of professional sport demands resilience, character, finesse and good fortune. On that grand and complex stage, Colin O’Riordan proved he belonged. 

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