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The Irishmen who will appear on Australia's biggest sporting stage

Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor never played Australian Rules football until their late teens but tomorrow they will become just the fourth and fifth Irishmen to play in the Grand Final.

Zach Tuohy (left) and Mark O'Connor (middle) play in tomorrow's Grand Final.
Zach Tuohy (left) and Mark O'Connor (middle) play in tomorrow's Grand Final.
Image: AAP/PA Images

Updated Oct 23rd 2020, 12:00 PM

THE OLD MEN sat by the window and stared at the next-big-thing and his inquisitive guest. It was a curious day, the weather Gods unable to decide whether to make it bright or dreary.

So the men fell silent and listened as the drip-drip-drip of water hurtled away down drains and the sound of a woman asking “How ya going?” was heard over the passing traffic. The view from this coffee shop took in low-cut hedges and less-than-daunting walls. Downtown Melbourne, 47 miles up the road, had a different feel, its Manhattan-lite skyline reminding you of any city on America’s east coast.

But Geelong has its own identity; Kardinia Park being the city’s tallest building, and even if the 36,000 capacity of this Australian Rules football stadium is dwarfed by the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where some of the Cats’ rivals play, it remains the dominant structure in this blue-collar town.

Work had brought me here, the morning train from Southern Cross rolling past a sign for Portarlington, just one more reminder of home for Geelong’s most famous Irish inhabitants.

Except that on this June day, just over two years ago, Mark O’Connor had yet to become famous, his profile considerably smaller here than in Ireland. So the old men sat and stared at this tall, young Irishman wearing skinny jeans and a club tracksuit. “Which one is he?” one of the gents asked the other.  

The owner of the café answered the question. “That’s Mark O’Connor,” he said. “Watch out for him.”

At 6ft 3in, it was hard to miss him. Back in Kerry, it is not just his family who were missing him. Twice an All-Ireland-winning minor, O’Connor’s presence in Geelong was a source of irritation to Kerry great, Tomas O’Se, who wrote a newspaper column bemoaning the lure of Australian Rules to the GAA’s top talents. An hour later, in the same coffee house, Zach Tuohy had his own say on the debate. “If you want Irish players to stay at home, incentivise them. Don’t tell them, ‘Stay because we coached you when you were an under-12’. If they want to travel, let them.”

mark-oconnor-lifts-the-cup O'Connor, as Kerry minor captain, lifts the All-Ireland. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

No one was stopping O’Connor. The 17,208 kilometre journey was a hard one to make initially but if there was homesickness, it had long since passed by the time we were sipping latté’s and watching the world go by. “The best way of putting it is that if you could be in two places at one time, you would,” he said.

Tuohy thinks along similar lines. At 30, he is seven years older than O’Connor, a veteran now of over 200 AFL games, having reached a landmark that only two other Irishmen — Jim Stynes and Stuart Magee — previously got to. Watching him warm up, in the sheltered, indoor facility underneath the stadium’s main stand, it just seemed absurd that a young man from Portlaoise, who had never played this strange game until he was 18-years-old, had managed to master it.

“It is illogical in a way,” Chris Scott, the Cats’ affable head coach, said. “The reality is a lot of those Irish players hadn’t picked up an Australian rules football until they came out here. And yet it makes sense to me that these guys have made it, because I’ve seen Gaelic football up close, seen the players’ physical attributes and ball-handling skills. So I can see how they can transfer from one code to another. Zach is one of our best kickers.”

As he spoke, the background noise was getting increasingly louder as Scott’s players finalised their warm-up, geeing up one another in heavy Australian accents up as a series of sprints was undertaken. Leading from the front, each time, was Tuohy. “Almost all of the Irish players who come out to Australia have been speedsters,” Scott says. “And you need that to prosper because AFL games have more congestion than Gaelic football matches, which might seem strange, given that the pitch is bigger. The player who does things quickly and accurately will prosper. Look at what Zach has done in his years here.”

Here’s what: after signing for Carlton in 2010, three years after he won a Leinster minor medal with Laois, Tuohy looked at his A$50,000 (about €32,000) yearly contract and decided, there and then, he was not going to return home a failure.

afl-cats-magpies Tuohy celebrates scoring in Geelong's semi-final win over Collingwood. Source: AAP/PA Images

“I’m sure there must have been some insecurities,” he said. “But I just don’t really remember them.”

He was lucky to have Setanta Ó hAilpín for company. “Get to 100 games and they put your name on the locker,” Ó hAilpín told him. Yet at the start it was not quite so simple. As he tried to master the oval ball, he was playing for Carlton’s feeder team, Northern Blues, in front of a few thousand fans, sharing a flat with three other players.

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Down the pecking order, not earning huge money, returning to Melbourne after Christmases in Laois, proved tough.

He missed playing club football with his mates back home, missed the idea of chasing a Leinster SFC medal. O’Connor, coached by Éamonn Fitzmaurice at secondary school, had made it on to the Kerry panel before Geelong called. “The offer was too good to turn down,” he says of the prospect of swapping a lifelong dream for this shiny, new reality.

He was glancing out of the window at this stage as another shower came to an end, content in the knowledge that the Furphy family home where he was lodging was only 750 metres away. “I’m settled here,” he said.

On the outside it didn’t look that way, a brief run in the first-team in that 2018 season leading to a demotion to the reserves, his interview coming an hour before Tuohy’s because the first-team and the kids togged out at different times. “There’ve been times when I’ve embarrassed myself at training, just getting used to the bounce of the ball, the rules,” O’Connor said. “But I’m getting there.”

Well, tomorrow he most certainly will have arrived as he and Tuohy line out in the AFL Grand Final, a prize only one Irishman, Tadhg Kennelly, has previously won. Bear in mind that O’Connor only took up this game four years ago. Tomorrow will be just his 51st game in this sport.

“He understands that the game’s hard,” Scott said last year. “But he’s improving year on year.” This year’s improvement has been off the charts, a place not just on the team as a key defender, but also on the club’s leadership group. Esava Ratugolea, who joined Geelong the same summer O’Connor arrived from Kerry, attributed O’Connor’s progress to his humility.

Ever since he came to the club, he’s just put his head down,” Ratugolea said. “He knew he had a lot to work on and he’s just been doing that. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve seen.”

Scott backed up his supportive words by giving O’Connor a new contract a year before his first one was due to end. He is also the coach who signed Tuohy, after his seven-year stint at Carlton ended. At that stage Tuohy was a father, going through the best time in his life but the lowest point of his career.

“What I found really hard was the fact that my son is one of eight grandchildren and the rest of his cousins are all back in Portlaoise,” Tuohy said. “I miss that family connection.”

His career took an upturn, though. Leaving underachieving Carlton for Geelong was a smart move; moving from defence to attack an even smarter one. “Zach is a warrior,” Scott said of the Laois man last month. “He laboured through a knee problem for us last year and he’s got a great capacity to play sore.

“I’m not a huge fan of players playing for too long when they’re sore – that can really come back to bite you.

“But sometimes, as long as it’s within the realms of safety and it doesn’t risk the long-term for the player, sometimes you’ve got to take the bit between the teeth and find a way and few do it better than him.”

It is why he has become a national figure in Australia; and why his and O’Connor’s accomplishments have reminded everyone in Ireland of what they are missing out on. “Gaelic football is a more skilful and a quicker sport than AFL,” he told me that day, two years ago. “That is why it is transferable to go across from home to here.”

Home.

The way he says it, you know he would like to go back at some stage. But that’s another day’s work. Tomorrow this curious job he does takes him and O’Connor to the Gabba, Brisbane’s iconic stadium, a 20-minute walk from its city centre.

The Grand Final is Australia’s version of the All-Ireland. The idea of one Irishman making it that far in a once-alien sport is fanciful; but for two of them to do it in the same team is just extraordinary. The old men in the coffee shop certainly know Mark O’Connor’s name by now.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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