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'From a young age, he was just gifted at everything he did' - Laois roots to Australian sporting star

On Friday, Zach Tuohy became the second Irish player after Jim Stynes to reach the 200 appearance mark in the AFL.

Image: AAP/PA Images

I DIDN’T CHASE that record – it just happened.

Yet it became an achievement I was pleased to have associated with my name because it is equated with resilience, one of the great qualities a man can possess.

  •  Jim Stynes in ‘My Journey’

*******************

IN THE SUMMER of 2009, the Carlton Australian Rules club took the next step on selling a sporting dream to two Irish teenagers, one from Cork and one from Laois.

Plans were made to bring the pair down to Melbourne to see their corner of the sporting world.

Ciaran Sheehan and Zach Tuohy were a few months out from their 19th birthdays, born three weeks apart in late 1990. They were young and developing but had firmly established their GAA credentials at that juncture.

Both had burst to prominence in 2007 as minors. Tuohy stepped up with the Portlaoise seniors as they lorded the Laois club scene and competed on winter Leinster journeys. Sheehan tapped into a good run of form in the spring of 2009, nailed down a wing-forward spot for Cork and rounded off a productive few months with Munster and All-Ireland U21 medals.

The movement from underage sensations to sampling the Cork and Laois senior environments had begun.

Others took notice. They caught the eye of Australian Rules scouts. Gerard Sholly was the first to get in touch and that kick-started a process. Now the tentative enquiries and initial trials were behind them. This was a training camp designed to provide more than a glimpse into the Australian Rules way of life and attempt to map out their sporting futures.

For all their apparent talent, they remained teenagers. Wide-eyed and excited at the chance to step into the lives of professionals.

“We met in Dublin airport and headed off together,” recalls Sheehan.

“Everybody knew the long-haired wing-back that had scored an unbelievable goal for Laois (against Derry in minor in 2007). That was my biggest memory. I’d played against him in a couple of challenge games.

“We travelled out together and we got on like a house on fire straight. When we got out there, we went down to the CEO, he had a summer house down the coast in Melbourne, and stayed there.

“Sure we were only 18 at the time, we didn’t know what we were at. Two young bulls, didn’t know whether to go left or right out there. I remember we got a slab of beer one night at the start and said we’d go out in the local town after and it turned out to be the quietest place ever.

“It was great to have that overall experience with someone else. We had a great time.”

Sheehan returned home and decided it was not for him. The lure of the local was too strong. The following year he was lifting the Sam Maguire with Cork in the Hogan Stand. The decision had an immediate and lucrative pay-off in that sense.

Tuohy signed up for the Australian life on offer, heading back out in October and making a commitment. He stuck it out and has reaped a sizeable personal dividend.

A debut arrived in 2011. On Friday night in Queensland he ran out for the 200th time in the AFL, 120 times in the colours of Carlton and 80 times with his current club Geelong. Hitting that milestone had proved problematic of late, knee trouble and a blow to the ribs ruled him out of different games in recent weeks as he closed in on that appearance record.

Then he hit it at the Metricon Stadium as Geelong’s six-game winning streak was halted by Richmond. But defeat could not overshadow Tuohy’s achievement.

afl-cats-tigers Zach Tuohy after Friday's game for Geelong against Richmond Source: AAP/PA Images

Only one other Irish player had previously reached the 200 landmark. Jim Stynes is illustrious company to be keeping with.

“When you go out there, everyone thinks they’re going to play a lot of games but it doesn’t pan out that way,” says Sheehan.

“I was looking at stats when I was working for the AFL Players’ Association. There was only eight (Irish) players of the about 50 that had come over had managed to get to 50 games or more. That’ll show you the scale of how difficult it is.

“But even a lot of Australians, they’d massively celebrate a 200th game. It’s a huge thing.”

Back home in Portlaoise they have tracked his rise. In their group growing up, Paul Cahillane was the first to make waves when he signed for Celtic as a teenager. They followed Scottish soccer avidly and then Tuohy switched them on to Australian Rules.

“Paul was the big news story when we were coming up so then for another one of our friends to get the chance to become professional, we were all kind of astounded,” recalls Kieran Lillis, the current Laois football captain. 

kieran-lillis-celebrates-with-his-nephew-daniel Kieran Lillis with his nephew Daniel after Laois defeated Offaly last summer Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“We were nearly all wondering would our turn come next but it never came for us! It was unbelievable to see the lads doing so well at such an early age but I suppose at the time none of us thought Zach was going to last for 200 games. We were all so green and so young. 

“I would have been a year younger than him in underage GAA terms but we were kind of best friends the whole way up. I’d be godfather to his son Flynn. We’d be close. I’d always be in touch with him every few weeks and then it was more frequent during Covid.”

In a way the seamless adaptation of Tuohy to an alien sport does not provoke surprise.

“He always just had something,” says Lillis.

“When we were growing up, whether we were in the snooker hall in Portlaoise, out in the back garden where he’d a bit of a tennis court or we were out on the green playing knockouts, he would school us in every discipline.

“And we had a good group of sporting friends. It wasn’t as if we were slouches but you just couldn’t touch him from a young age. He was gifted at everything he did, he could throw his hand to anything.

“In our U12 team, he was corner-back. I don’t know if he’d admit it himself but he was kind of just shoved into the corner to make up the numbers more than anything. But when he hit his teen years he just blossomed into a fabulous kind of balanced player.”

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13 years ago they hit the big time. The Laois minor team reached the Leinster final that year, taking on neighbours Carlow and playing as the curtain-raiser to the Laois senior side’s battle against Dublin. All those elements combined to inflate the pre-match hype.

Lillis and Tuohy slotted into the wing-back positions, Conor Meredith bagged a hat-trick from full-forward and Laois hung on to win by two in a game that they had been in front comfortably by eight.

zac-tuohy-celebrates Zach Tuohy celebrates after Laois won the 2007 Leinster minor final Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It was our biggest day at that point,” remembers Lillis.

“A Leinster final, first time playing in Croker and everything like that so there was big  excitement. Liam Kearns, the senior manager at the time, came onto our bus and gave us a speech beforehand.  There was thousands of Laois fans in the stadium by the end of our game. To play there and do the lap of honour with all those boys was brilliant.

“I just remember Zac on the day, his pace was unbelievable. He ran the full length of the field at one stage and put the ball over the bar. He always had that explosive ability and he caught the eyes of the AFL boys.”

He was not the only one. Meredith went for a trial with Brisbane Lions and ended up signing for North Melbourne. Brendan Murphy, Carlow’s leading light, was recruited by Sydney Swans. Both returned home after a couple of years. Tuohy developed incrementally, he braved the feeling of isolation that can afflict many, staved off the homesickness and then cemented himself in the sport.

In November 2013 the chance arose for Sheehan to nail his colours to the AFL mast again. He seized the chance offered by Carlton and found himself acquainted with Tuohy once more.

“When I met him again in ’13, it was like, ‘Sorry about that Zach, I left you hanging there a few years ago.’ He just laughed it off.

“He’s funny in how he goes around training because he’s always a guy that really puts in a lot of work but it seems like he doesn’t. He’s very determined. He goes away and works as well in his own time without anybody knowing about it. All of a sudden Zach’s in tip top shape coming back for pre-season.”

His feat in stitching together 138 consecutive games, from 2012 until the start of the 2019 season when it was evenutally snapped, stands out. It may be short of the legendary Stynes, whose unbroken streak of 244 matches may never be bettered, but still in a sport of such shuddering intensity, Tuohy’s run was remarkable.

“I was delighted with my six,” laughs Sheehan.

“It’s insane stuff. I walk away happy I got to play six and I can’t even comprehend his. I think when you reach 100 games, it’s like, ‘I’m onto something here.’

“I do think he’s the ultimate professional. He would say himself there’s always going to be luck attached to anyone who gets to 200 games in AFL. It’s so intense, after one game, your body is broke. It does take a lot of discipline to be able to recover right, eat the right things, stretching and all that. He did that because honestly there’s no other way of being able to get to the 200 mark otherwise.

“There was only one thing on his mind. That was to play AFL football and play it for a long period of time. He’s done just that.”

australian-rules-football-afl-premiership-round12-geelong-cats-v-carlton-blues-etihad-stadium Tuohy in action in his Carlton days when he faced Geelong. Source: JOE CASTRO

Lillis pinpoints another important character trait.

“He’s able to get on with a group of lads there as if he knew them all his life. That’s really beneficial to him. He’s able to slag the lads, he’s doesn’t mind throwing the few digs and he can roll with the punches. That definitely helps in a team sport environment. He’s not introverted, he doesn’t shy away from that, he’s an outgoing person.”

There is a strong support network at home while he has his family out with him in his partner Bec, his sons Flynn and Rafferty. Lillis witnesses all those sources of assistance. They keep the communication lines open constantly. In 2017 after Laois saw their championship interest end, Lillis went travelling. He was planning to go to Bali but figured when he was heading that way, he’d keep going and managed to see the local AFL export play for Geelong in Brisbane. Last Halloween when Tuohy was home, the pair flew to Liverpool to watch their team of choice play Spurs at Anfield.

There is something that gnaws at Tuohy though, the sporting team that he left behind.

mick-lillis-and-zach-tuohy-celebrate Zach Tuohy with Kieran's father Mick, then Portlaoise manager, after a Laois county final success. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It kills him not to be able to line out with Portlaoise every time but he’s just had to put his career ahead of anything else and put his family first. That’s admirable too.

“I suppose at the start there might have been an expectation that he would line out with us whenever he was home. But I think the lads have understood that this is his profession.

“It was definitely great when he played and we could share in those moments. He got us out of jail once or twice. We were put to the pin of our collar by Emo in 2015 and he came on and rescued a draw for us nearly single-handedly, we ended up winning the replay (Tuohy scored 1-2).

“It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t really been around for the Leinster club campaigns because over the years we’ve missed out on one or two of them by one or two points. You’d always wonder if we had him, how would we get on?”

Sheehan has witnessed Tuohy’s decency and his influence on other Irish players. At Carlton it was him and Louth’s Ciaran Byrne who benefited from that guidance, he knows the Kerry pair of Mark O’Connor and Stefan Okunbor are getting that help now at Geelong.

ciaran-sheehan-zach-tuohy-and-ciaran-byrne Ciaran Sheehan, Zach Tuohy and Ciaran Byrne at a 2014 International Rules friendly Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I’m absolutely delighted for him. With Bec and his two kids, he’s made an amazing life for himself out there. It’s his home away from home now.

“He’s worked very hard. He has that competitive streak. He was always seen as the aggressive, tough Irish man and he kind of lived up to that. He has the old Viking look about himself, this tough nut, hard defender that could kick a ball beautifully.

“He was durable enough to train hard week in, week out without any interruptions. That certainly gave him an edge. It hasn’t been easy for him at times as well but to be able to get to where he is now and achieve what he has.”

Back at home it’s been a welcome good news story during a turbulent year. Lillis has seen his Laois senior campaign interrupted while the doors of his bar and restaurant Lilly’s had to be shut due to Covid-19. In a time of uncertainty getting to follow a friend’s sporting progress on the AFL app or watching matches on BT Sport is a boost to the spirits.

And he knows there is another Australian Rules prize that Tuohy is hunting down, one he craves above all other accolades. Geelong are currently fourth on the AFL ladder, still in the reckoning for the 2020 finals.

“He’s a big thing about that. He would definitely still rate (Tadhg) Kennelly ahead of him because of the Premiership medal, that’s what his goal is. He’s part of a team and a squad that seems to have the potential. A few games that I’ve watched they seem to be clicking.

“Hopefully now this year is the year. We’ll be keeping an eye on it all anyway like we always have.” 

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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