“A man named Dennis will be waiting outside of Sydney Airport.”
When Colin O’Riordan boldly decided to leave his friends, family, and Tipperary behind for a career in Australian Rules, this is what he was told by the Sydney Swans.
That was all he was told.
“You leave your whole life behind you,” he recalls as he sits in an east Sydney café. “I got off a plane and I was told ‘this lad will meet you there’. That is all I knew. I didn’t know what he looked like or anything about him. But you are told he will get you and look after you.
“I got off a plane and said, ‘right I have no one here. No one. It is me versus the world. Whatever happens, it is on me. All I know is that Dennis will be here, and I will be in training tomorrow.’ That can be daunting.
“I understand why young lads come over thinking it is great to be a professional, but the novelty does wear off after a while. This is hard work and if you don’t put in the effort you will not get the reward.”
A minor All-Ireland winner and U21 All-Ireland finalist, O’Riordan was a rising star from the moment he joined the U18 county squad as a 15-year-old.
He would go on to progress through the ranks, log a year of inter-county football, before opting for a life Down Under. In 2014, his phone rang. Several AFL outfits were interested. He still remembers standing there in Dundrum shopping centre, his girlfriend alongside him, as Tadhg Kennelly told him the news.
That was the moment when the prospect of a professional career crystallised in O’Riordan’s mind.
A brief trial stint in Melbourne was followed by a few weeks in Sydney. They put him up in a house alongside Coogee beach. It didn’t take long for the Tipperary dual star to fall in love with the city and the club.
Dennis turned out to be Dennis Carroll, the club’s player development manager: “You realise he is the nicest bloke you will ever meet, everything you want to be as a human.”
As well as that, there was the presence of former Swan and Kerry star Tadhg Kennelly. He is still at the club as a defence coach. The 2009 All-Ireland winner became a father figure. A confidant who understood when motivation or castigation was required. So, the 19-year old joined the Swans and set about reaching his goal of a competitive debut.
To get there, O’Riordan was willing to do anything. Everything.
“I had this thing when I first came over. I said to myself I wanted to touch the ball 2,000 times a day. At the end of the year, it will equate to over 700,000 touches. That was my plan to get better.
“You can do handballs or simple things. That way I felt like I was catching up because the Aussies are well ahead of us. You put a lot of thought into things you do. A lot of it was down to Tadgh and his experience. He told me what he did and what I could take from that.
“I suppose it was just my mentality. I was adamant if someone succeeds over me it won’t be because of a lack of effort on my behalf. They might be more skilled, but they will not out-work me.
“There is serious competitiveness here and I’d like to think that is my biggest strength. I like being competitive in everything I do.”
The Swans offer a unique opportunity to do so.
“The thing is, with a professional environment, they give you everything to help you succeed. I’m not hammering the GAA one bit, but the resources aren’t there to do that. Over here we have four full-time physios, two full-time doctors. All the special care you want — 10 or 11 sports scientists with us.”
The precise combination of a professional environment and relentless persistence yielded notable success. In 2018 he made his debut. Last year he became a regular in the starting team and signed a new two-year contract.
Gaelic football remains close to the 24-year old’s heart, but he does not mourn leaving it. In fact, a small part of him was glad to get away.
“After the U21 All-Ireland final, I was just in a slump,” O’Riordan explains, pausing for a moment, preparing to recall that troublesome time. “Tyrone beat us and naturally I was a bit of fed up with the whole thing. You put your heart and soul into it for a year. To be pipped on the line just made me a bit disgruntled.
“I wanted a break. At one stage I was playing for 10 teams. It overtakes you and you just get sick of it. Burnout is a big word now, but I think it is massive for underage kids. Something needs to be done about the load put on youngsters at high levels.
“When I was at home, I was leaving UCD at 4am. I was getting back at 12.30 that night. Getting up going to college and doing the same thing again three times a week. It catches up with you. That is just for one team, trying to play freshers football and hurling plus everything back home… You can’t do it. the stress it puts on kids’ bodies.
“Young lads, I’ve no doubt if you investigate hip and knee surgeries over the last 10, 15 years, the spike must be incredible.”
That is part of the reason he is grateful for the meticulous care afforded to him now. At 15, the young prospect was sat in front of Dr Pat O’Neill in the Mater Private hospital. He was diagnosed with osteitis pubis. The prognosis was stark: “If you keep going the way you are going; you won’t be able to play any more by the time you are 21.”
“A lot of it is madness. You don’t think that at the time. You just have this drive to succeed. Looking back now, I ask how did I do it? Was I stupid or what?”
As much as the move has taught him about training, he has learned even more about tactics. This is an area he is adamant GAA coaches could learn from, if only they were willing to give it a chance.
Anti-AFL rhetoric is nothing new but a recent strand has seen critics take aim at the sport itself. In doing so, they are failing to see transferable aspects of the game.
“There is so much you could bring back from AFL. We have a massive emphasis on forward pressure. Every team in the competition does it now. The GAA have allowed a mentality to develop of sitting back. Why? The best place to turn over a ball is close to goal in their half, if you can get real forward coordinated pressure.
“The same goes for a kickout press. Force them to go long. At times I would bring the whole half-back line and midfield up. Squeeze up. Outnumber them with 1v3s, 1v4s.
“As for a rule, the GAA should do something so simple. If it is a penalty or free here, you have to hand the ball back. It stops time wasting, speeds it up. Stops cynical timewasting. The onus is on you to hand the ball back. If they don’t, bring it up 20 metres. It is so simple. You don’t need a massive rule change, but it creates discipline within the code. You just have to respect it.
“I think some people badmouth the AFL and they’re missing a trick.”
There is rarely a simple explanation for success in professional sport, but if you were to look for one in Colin O’Riordan’s story, it could be boiled down to the fact he is blissfully at home here.
Days off are spent studying business in the local university. He remains immersed in the Irish community both through the local GAA club, who he periodically trains, and his housemates, who are all Irish emigrants. Last year his older brother, Alan, was one of those housemates.
He came pursuing a career; it helped him to find contentment. “I was always a ‘big picture guy’ at home. I suppose something l learned massively over here is to step back. The Swans reward the small things.
“There is a big emphasis on celebrating when you hit an objective. You are rewarded, a dinner out or whatever. Celebrate little wins. A block, a tackle, a spoil. Remember them.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t do those things you won’t achieve anything major. Enjoy the little milestones. What is the point in living otherwise? You can’t constantly chase something.
“It does help. I mean you do have to be entirely consumed by it. I make no apologies for that. Football is on your brain 95% of the time, but that little time to breath and reset is massive. Just to keep you in check. Small wins and university, I enjoy those moments where you stop for a second. It all feeds in. Football isn’t the be all and end all, but I have everything I need to go at it while I can.”