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The Wolf of Portlaoise: Zach Tuohy is an Irish sporting story that needs to be savoured

Zach Tuohy plays his 250th AFL game in the Grand Final on Saturday.

HIS FIRST WEEK at the club ended in tears. It was inevitable in the circumstances. Understandable. You can’t hold back the tide.

Zach Tuohy was 26 years old when he requested a trade to Geelong from Carlton. It cost the Cats Billie Smedts, a future-first round pick and pick 63 in the draft. Carlton fans still bemoan the outcome of that exchange that saw them lose the lockdown defender.

The move was messy. Irish players in the AFL rarely switch clubs. One-club, one-county is the nurtured uniformity, a second-nature loyalty often ill-suited to the brutality of professional sport. Even though the extension offer that forced him to look elsewhere was almost laughable, to make the jump was still unsettling.

All of this on top of gruelling running sessions, manager meetings, performance reviews, and the thousand other inevitable highs and lows enjoyed and endured by a professional athlete on the other side of the world. By his side for all of it was Olly. The first dog Tuohy ever bought for himself.

A husky, kicking partner, therapist, watchdog, his son’s pillow and babysitter. A best friend by his side through thick and thin.

In the middle of the 2016 off-season with his transfer eventually agreed, Tuohy and his family flew back to Portlaoise. Olly went to stay with his partner Becca’s parents in Bendigo, upstate Victoria.

He knew something was wrong as soon as he returned. Olly was lethargic. Within days, he was crashing. The vet was concerned. Tuohy was terrified. They moved him to the Werribee Animal Hospital and the dog was put on a ventilator.

The long goodbye was torturous. Grief poured out of him as he drove back down the Princes Highway, alone. Signing the papers to put Olly down was the worst thing he has done in his life. The autopsy would reveal he was bitten by a snake. There was nothing they could have done. In the meantime, all that was left was overwhelming sorrow.

 He knew he should socialise with his new team-mates but the thought of attending the club function that night was unbearable. He called and said he can’t go but couldn’t muster the words to explain why. Eventually, in the dressing room the next day the physio was strapping his ankles before training.

‘How’s Olly?’ he unknowingly asked. A dagger to the heart. Tuohy started bawling and had to leave the room. When he was able, he explained what happened. The squad gathered around and embraced him. Talking, consoling, being whatever help they could be.

Zach Tuohy will line out in his 250th AFL game this Saturday. It is the Grand Final, Geelong vs Sydney Swans. At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, he will be unmistakable.

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The broad frame, the deadeye kicks, the rebounding runs from the wing and the iconic tattoos. The ink adorns every limb. A sleeve, featuring music notes for his brother. Birds for his sister. Angels for his parents. A mental health passage for a friend who passed away.

And an enormous portrait dominating his lower leg. A husky’s snout, pointed upright ears, the affectionate gleam of a man’s best friend. A tribute to Olly.


The only guarantee in a sporting life is decline. That is the story of an athlete. Repelling it, defying it, delaying and succumbing to it. Any respite is only temporary, the scythe will swing. One sole warranty. The end is coming. Take that to the bank.

Some suggest it is simply physics. Newton told us what goes up must go down. The reality is not so seamless. It’s crueller than that. The rise is not guaranteed. Athletes toll for years to try make it at an elite level and never get there. They still fall down, that’s for sure. A day in the sun is rare; rain is certain.

The Portlaoise club man has successfully navigated various pitfalls time and time again. Staved off the oncoming decline. On the road to greatness, there are many frontiers. He burst onto the scene in 2007 as a star minor. His journey from there to Melbourne for a two-week trial alongside Cork’s Ciaran Sheehan is well told.

What isn’t is how close it all came to ending before it even began. Gerard Sholly was the scout who spotted Tuohy and made contact. He then invited Carlton general manager Steven Icke to come to Ireland and watch Tuohy play. This was amidst the AFL in Ireland gold rush.

‘Did you hear…?’ Locally all the talk was of interest in underage sensations attracting Aussie attention. Brendan Murphy, Donal Kingston, Conor Meredith. Colm Begley was already up and running with Brisbane. An outstanding individual goal as a minor against Derry caught Sholly’s eye and in 2008, he and Icke went along for a look.

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It was a Leinster U21 quarter-final, three in a row chasing and heavily fancied Laois against Wicklow. They were hammered. Tuohy didn’t score. He hardly touched the ball. Sholly felt embarrassed. Icke was perplexed. From that point, they rated Sheehan above the Laois teen.

Mercifully, they were far enough down the road that it didn’t bring the journey crashing to a halt. The Irish duo jetted off for a two-week trial to Melbourne. Tuohy hated every minute of it. A bus to Dublin felt like a big trip, Australia was lightyears away.

It was a shock to the system in every sense. Emotionally, mentally, physically. Back then Carlton utilised a Princes Park 3.2k time trial. Tuohy had never experienced anything like it. He took off too quick and hit the red zone as the rest were just picking up steam.

In order to make it, he was willing to do everything. Anything. As the youngest of four, his parents found it hard to watch him go. Originally his mother would accompany him to the airport, but it proved too much. Now she says her goodbye at door, where the blanket of home can combat any tears.

Homesickness? It lingered like a weight around his neck. Having experienced several failed winter Leinster journeys with Portlaoise, in 2009 they finally got over the provincial line and he was crushed to miss out on it. His team-mate Setanta Ó hAilpín eventually had to plead with him; stop watching GAA. It only makes it harder.

At home, they knew Tuohy would never forgive himself if he packed it in. Their boundless support maintained him in those lonely young years.

For Portlaoise, it was a badge of honour that they had produced a professional sportsman. For his family, It was a source of comfort that the boy who always loved playing with a ball was doing it for a living. For Tuohy, it never stops being surreal.

Eager parents pull startled children over to the table in a café to say hello and brandish their Tuohy footy cards. When they make their appreciative exit, he spends the next five minutes incredulous that he is on a footy card. There was a time a Premier League sticker collection was a particular childhood fascination.

The idea that his face now adorns a card? Absurd. That grounding is what made him. It still sustains him.

If a golfer ever spoke to another golfer the way they speak to themselves, they’d be expelled. Zach Tuohy embodies that mantra. He knows it is unhealthy. As he gets older, it has become a conscious effort to keep it internal. No intense cursing after a mistake. No beating the turf after a defeat. Between the eyes is the padded cell and let loose in there but don’t concede an inch publicly. Feed the fire. Use it to fend off any decline.  

Channel it. Fuel it with non-negotiable fundamentals that will be boxed off every single day. Before his AFL debut, while he was still tolling in the VFL with the Bullants, that orientated around stoppages.

As a defender, Tuohy was often the nearest defender behind a stoppage. Gradually, it became a self-imposed rule that he would take leadership around that. That spot is always nailed. They would set up properly and never mess it up. It forced him to be vocal and constantly switched on. A game within the game. Any mistake, even if it wasn’t his own, would result in a verbal lashing.

He needed an edge, so he manifested one.

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He loves the fight and hates to lose. During his stint with Carlton, the coaching staff handed out an award for a player act of the week. In 2014, they played Port Adelaide at AAMI Stadium. A round 10 tie that they found themselves 27 points down in the fourth quarter.

Late in the game, Port Adelaide cleared from their own 50 in the general direction of Tuohy who managed to spoil. The footy broke to the ground and bobbled along, with 100kg key forward Jay Shulz storming towards it. Without a moment’s hesitation, Tuohy dived headfirst. The collision was monstrous. They both spun like bumper cars in opposite directions.

Shulz stayed crumpled in a heap. Tuohy bounced up and stumbled after the ball. For that response, he was given the weekly award. That moment distilled his career down to its essential components. Not today, Satan.

Be the guy your team-mates want to go into battle with. He used to love being in the Portlaoise dressing room and having a savage like Cahir Healy by his shoulder. He dreamed of being that for others.

The same thing that earned him his chance and saw him grind from the bottom player on a list to an established pro is what keeps him motivated now. A constant guard against complacency. Run from the little voice in his head? Not likely. Stand up and go toe-to-toe.

Tuohy is 14 games shy of Jim Stynes’ Irish AFL appearance record. Unlike Brownlow medallist Stynes, he has never been selected for the All-Australian team. He has more appearances than Swans hall-of-famer Tadhg Kennelly but no Premiership medal, yet. Even still, in Geelong, he is a role model.

“He is an inspiration to that football club. I know so many young Cats players look up to him. The community looks up to him, knowing his story and what he sacrificed in Ireland to make it out here,” says Troy Selwood.

He is the former Geelong’s talent ID manager having played in the AFL for seven years. Selwood’s brother, Joel, is currently club captain.

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“Zach has become such an adaptable, highly versatile player for the Cats.  

“When he first arrived, he was known as a running half-back with a bit of a hard edge. Someone who uses the ball really well. Over the past five or six years, he has played for Geelong in all three zones of the game. Forward, midfield and down back.

“He goes about his work without a whole lot of fanfare but when you review the game and watch him closely, you realise how big an impact he has especially with ball in hand. He just makes great decisions every single time. His team-mates love when he has the ball in his hand.”

Selwood was heavily involved in the signing of Kerry’s Mark O’Connor. He can still remember the first day of the Dingle native’s trial when someone on the sideline pointed to him and said, ‘that kid can play 200 AFL games.’ He has watched O’Connor develop ever since and how he has been moulded to lead from the front.  

“If somebody asked me when my brother Joel retires who should be the next captain at Geelong, I think Mark O’Connor is in that conversation. That might be surprising externally but internally, absolutely not. It is not a guarantee obviously. There are plenty of contenders.

“But he has the character, he is a special person. He has loads of football in him and he learned from the best in Zach Tuohy.”

In Australia within the one-club town of Geelong, Tuohy is a treasure. They celebrate him in his other town too. Outside of Kieran Lillis’ bar, the Geelong colours hang proudly.

Beyond that, it is muted. Nationally his achievements fail to register. Despite over a decade of consistent performance at the top end of a professional league, he is unlikely to ever feature on a nominations list for sportsperson of the year.

Somewhat understandable. As great as he is, those feats came in a foreign and unfamiliar sport 10,000 miles away. Out of sight is out of mind. Is it all that important? He is already a hero where it matters.

Still thriving. Striving for the garland that would validate it all. In 2020 Geelong lost out in the final against Richmond. In 2021, eventual champions Melbourne defeated them in the preliminary final. After that fixture, the missed opportunities were starting to weigh on his mind.

“It is hard not to think fairly deeply about these things when you are my age. I am fully aware I am going to have fewer and fewer opportunities from here on in,” he told The42’s GAA podcast last October.  

“It depends on what your metric for success is. It is hard to dedicate yourself physically and emotionally to trying to win a flag. If at the end of it all, you don’t win it, I’m just not sure how I could ever view myself as a success.

“Failure would be too harsh a word, but success might be going too far the other way.”

To everyone else who understands this realm, he has long been a champion. The only person left to prove it to is Zach Tuohy.

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