IT was without doubt the off-season from hell. One of Aussie Rules’ most glamorous clubs, St Kilda are rarely out of the intense spotlight in Australia’s sporting capital. But even by those standards, the past few months have been unprecedented.
The short version? It goes something like this. After ending the 2010 AFL season as bridesmaids for the second year in a row, the squad broke for the darkness of the off-season with wound-licking again top of the agenda.
But just before Christmas, nude and compromising images of their skipper and spiritual leader Nick Riewoldt and two other players were posted online by the teenage girl who would later bring down Ricky Nixon’s career.
Having been dogged by discipline issues over a period of years, St Kilda club chiefs did their best to quell the furore and keep their players out of the papers. They decided that a pre-season camp in New Zealand would be the perfect tonic. And it looked like working, until a few days in when a group of players were accused of binge-drinking, abusing prescription drugs, brawling in the street and urinating in public.
Head coach Ross Lyon was so livid he was rumoured to have told the players involved that they “can all go get f**ked’. Bans and fines aplenty were dished out and the big, bad headlines just kept on coming.
Somewhere in the middle of this far from perfect storm, gearing up for his all-important, make-or-break second season in the AFL, was former Young Footballer of the Year, Tommy Walsh.
“The biggest eye-opener the whole off-season and pre-season was the whole media side of things. It was just crazy,” he tells the Irish Examiner.
“Back home it is...well, whatever, but here in Melbourne, if you go out for a pint, there’s a good chance it’s going to be in the paper the next day. The invasion of people’s personal lives is just crazy, it takes a hell of a lot of getting used to.
“When you’re signing that contract to become a professional, in one sense you are signing away your privacy a wee bit but it was still crazy to get used to. Apparently in Melbourne, there are more journalists covering the AFL than there are players in the league. I don’t know how true that is but there are times when it seems to be, and they (the footy media) are always trying to find something.”
And after all, being a professional is exactly why Walsh made that critical call back in 2009, fresh from having an All-Ireland winners’ medal draped around his neck, to turn his back on the Kingdom, his family and home in Tralee.
And having spent his first 12 months getting to grips with the alien shapes of ball, playing field and man-mountain opponents, he now feels ready to make his mark.
“I’m looking forward to this year a lot more, purely because I have a better understanding of it all. I know what to do, I know my role, I know my place in the team and in the club, I just feel like I fit in with everything over here a lot more,” says Walsh.
“Last year was essentially starting a brand new sport for me. As much as I would have loved to have gone and played the first game the first week and just waltzed on after that, I had to keep remembering that I am at one of the best teams in the country. That became clear very quickly, so I had to take a step back and learn the game as quickly as I could. But you have to reevaluate just how soon you can do all the things you’d love to be able to do. It did take a long while to get that understanding, and get a few games under my belt and then build it all up from there, but I definitely feel I’m getting somewhere now.”
At least he was, until a back injury flared up and interrupted his pre-season just when it looked like getting going. It ensured he never had a hope of forcing his way into the picture for last night’s season-opener at the cavernous MCG, as the Saints were agonisingly downed 48-47 in the dying stages by fellow giants Geelong.
It was rotten timing for the 23-year-old who had been thriving in the early stages of the pre-season.
So much so that Lyon was confident enough to finally blood him at AFL. It might only have been the pre-season NAB Cup competition — to all intents and purposes a Charity Shield involving all 18 clubs — but just pulling on the iconic Saints jersey was a special moment.
“It did feel good, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, it still wasn’t a real premiership game. It was nice to be out there wearing the shirt but that’s not the competition I came out here to be playing in,” he says with trademark focus. “It was a stepping stone though and I was delighted to be playing for the first team and running out with lads that I hadn’t had the chance to play with. So to get out there and compete with them under the roof at the Etihad Stadium was a great experience and one I’ll remember.”
But it’s been back to the day job since — keeping his head down, working through the injury and hopefully working his way back to the big show. And as day jobs go, it isn’t all that bad.
“Growing up playing any sport and anyone that has that kind of a passion for sport, it’s always your dream to be a professional and to do it as your job and get paid for it. But it wasn’t for the money I came out here — it was for the fact that I get to get up every morning, roll out of bed and go in there. And I know there’s a lot of meetings and things like all that other stuff — strength and conditioning, kicking a ball around, it’s all stuff that we love doing, we’d probably be doing it anyway, even if it wasn’t our job. It’s just a gift really to be able to do it as your full-time job.”
Some aspects of the daily grind though, are tougher than others.
“Jesus, the yoga actually is tough enough now,” he laughs. “You think it’s going to be fine but it’s bloody hard. All those moves that they put in... you feel as if you’re going to dislocate half your body. The sweat would be pumping out of ya! It’s amazing. I’ll have to get Galvin into it the next time I’m home!”
Home might never be far from Walsh’s thoughts. But he’s adamant that Melbourne — and Australian Rules football — is now his home. It’s where he sees his future and where he wants to make it.
“It’s a tough place to get your chance. We’ve been in the last two Grand Finals, we play finals football every year, there’s 46 or 47 guys going for 22 spots every week so not even half are going to be getting in there. But if you do break in, you’re playing on a team that’s contending for cups. It’s a big challenge but one I am ready for. And I’m loving the challenge.”
TOMMY WALSH is far from alone in facing into a pivotal year in the AFL. In fact, almost the entire Irish brigade Down Under — and the very habit of Aussie Rules clubs recruiting GAA talent — have a future that is far from certain. The number of Irishmen in the AFL is down from 11 to 10 on last year’s total and, owing to injuries to stalwarts Tadhg Kennelly and Setanta Ó hAilpín, Mayo’s Pearce Hanley is the only exile lining out on the opening weekend of the Premiership season, having been named in the Brisbane side to face Perth’s West Coast Eagles.
“I think everyone’s just desperate to get a game,” Walsh, who spent St Patrick’s Day with Essendon’s Michael Quinn, Collingwood’s Paul Cribbin and Zach Tuohy of Carlton, said of his fellow hopeful converts.
Irishmen in the AFL for season 2011: Tadhg Kennelly, Chris McKaigue (Sydney Swans); Setanta Ó hAilpín, Zach Tuohy (Carlton Blues); Pearce Hanley, Niall McKeever (Brisbane Lions); Tommy Walsh (St Kilda); Michael Quinn (Essendon Bombers); Jamie O’Reilly (Richmond Tigers); Paul Cribbin (Collingwood).