Colin O’Riordan’s absence will be keenly felt by the Tipperary footballers at Semple Stadium today, but he is working hard to make his presence felt in Sydney.
MAROUBRA, a beachside suburb in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, is the place Colin O’Riordan now calls home.
Sydney Swans operate a housing programme, O’Riordan explains, where players are grouped together in accommodation.
He’s living with Aliir Aliir and Tom Papley, two guys who have already achieved what O’Riordan is moving ever closer to.
Aliir’s story is incredible in its own right. He was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, to Sudanese parents, and migrated to Australia when he was just seven years of age.
His family settled in Brisbane and that’s where Aliir took up Australian Rules Football.
He was selected for a number of representative teams and after moving to Perth, was rewarded with a Swans draft pick in 2013.
The Sudanese refugee made his AFL debut for the Swans against Brisbane at the end of April and last month, he signed a new two-year deal.
Papley is Australian and his grandfathers Max Papley and Jeff Bray both played for South Melbourne in the 1960s.
This has been a breakthrough year for the 19-year-old, who has made eight AFL appearances and scored 11 goals.
Tipperary native O’Riordan is waiting for his chance but making steady progress.
With 11 rounds of the regular season remaining, O’Riordan still has time to make his senior debut this season but he’s played 10 games to-date for what’s effectively the reserve team in the North East AFL.
Last Sunday, the Swans played on the Gold Coast, winning 107-21, and O’Riordan says: “I had my best game to be honest. It was bucketing rain, awful weather. I was happy enough, 29 possession and kicked a goal as well, which is always a help.”
Looking at his goal on video, the same fluent movement and kicking style that characterised his two seasons with Tipperary’s senior footballers is evident.
O’Riordan latches onto a tap-down from a teammate and steers a shot between the posts for a six-pointer off his right boot, from an acute angle.
O’Riordan’s efforts saw him listed as the game’s best player, with Aliir third.
It’s surely only a matter of time now for O’Riordan, as Dean Towers (ranked second best for the reserves last weekend), Tony Nankervis and Aliir have been called into the senior squad for today’s first team derby against the Greater Western Sydney Giants.
In the NEAFL, the Swans are ten from ten for the season and O’Riordan began his career against the Brisbane Lions in April with eight kicks, six handballs, four marks and a tackle.
It was a more than solid start and O’Riordan recalls the feeling of lining out as something akin to playing in his first minor match for Tipperary.
“You know you weren’t on the first team but still wanted to get there,” he says.
“I wanted to play well and that’s all I’m trying to focus on. It was a good feeling, alright. Hopefully, when the day comes and there’s a chance to play senior, it will be a great feeling as well, obviously.”
Watching the Swans senior team in action is whetting O’Riordan’s appetite to be involved. “We go to all the home senior games,” he says. “We can’t travel to the away games because we could have a game ourselves but it does stir the blood and get the heart pumping. I didn’t think it would as much as it did.”
O’Riordan knows he’s close — 46 professional athletes are considered for a 22-man match-day panel and the rest play with the reserves. He trains with the first team squad, considers himself one of them now, and he compares his quest to that of the traditional reserve team player in English football, knocking hard on the door until it opens.
When we catch up with O’Riordan, it’s 6pm in the evening and he’s about to tuck into his evening meal, consisting of chicken, carrot and sweet potato. He’ll usually wake at 7am and the aim is to reach the training ground by 7.45 or 8 o’clock.
Training is at 9.30 but players are required to be there an hour or an hour and a half early to stretch and have their ankles strapped.
He’s on the pitch then for a training session that is all ball-work. The heavy duty running has been completed during two months of pre-season and from there, it’s all about ticking over and remaining injury-free.
Training finishes at 10.30am or 11am and lunch is scheduled from 12.30pm to 1.30pm. O’Riordan will try to fit in a rub at some stage and after lunch, it’s a gym session from 2.30pm to 3.30pm.
“After that, you’re done for the day,” he smiles. “It’s a long day, 8-3.30pm, a standard day with a lot of down time.”
Players fill the gaps with a trip to the games room, where a ping-pong table is a particular favourite, while others opt for 20 minutes in the ice-bath or a visit to the spa.
For O’Riordan, the key is to get his body right from the exertions of the previous weekend and for a player who has suffered hip problems from over-training as a teenager, this aspect is crucial.
“I could write a book on it,” he smiles. “It’s all good at the minute though. It’s not hard to be right when you have three full-time physios looking after you every day though! They keep a close eye on my hips and they’re all good at the minute.”
O’Riordan, who will be 21 in October, admits that he arrived in Australia not quite knowing what to expect.
And so he stuck to what he does best, keeping his head down and working hard.
“I’m trying just keep learning the game, that’s all I’m really trying to focus on,” he says.
“I don’t read too much into what people write, I concentrate on what I can control. If a chance comes to play senior, I’ll be ready for it.
“But there’s so many of me out there, everyone’s just trying to make it into the senior team and because they’re going so well, it’s a hard team to break into.
“If you do get the chance, you’ll feel he’ll have earned it. Hopefully, if the time comes, it will be a good feeling.”
Homesickness hasn’t been an issue thus far, O’Riordan confirms, and having former Kerry star Tadhg Kennelly close by helps too.
Kennelly’s now a Swans hall of famer and it was at an AFL talent combine that O’Riordan grabbed his attention.
“I honestly can’t speak highly enough of the man and his CV speaks for itself, winning and achieving everything he did,” O’Riordan notes.
“He’s been a legend from day one, a father figure to me. It’s really good to have someone so close that you can rely on.
“To be honest, I’d miss home at times. You miss the people more than you’d miss the home because it’s the people that make it a home. I miss them a good bit more than the home itself.
“Tadhg has obviously helped me through stuff like that. He tells me to expect it to happen and it’s natural. To have someone like that, who’s gone through it all, really gives you a lift.”
Naturally, O’Riordan still keeps in touch with events at home, acknowledging that the “passion and love” that he has for Gaelic games doesn’t change overnight just because he’s a professional in Australia now.
And he’s disappointed that the considerable recent progress achieved by Tipperary in the underage ranks now looks like unravelling at senior level.
In many ways, O’Riordan was a totemic figure in 2014 and 2015, despite his relative inexperience.
His former team-mates often relay tales of rousing dressing room speeches that had the hair on the back of their necks standing up.
Even when he joined the Tipperary minor football set-up as a 15-year-old, O’Riordan wasn’t afraid to speak.
He won an All-Ireland minor football medal in 2011 and Tipp retained their Munster crown a year later.
He also starred on the victorious 2015 Munster U21 team that went on to contest an All-Ireland final against Tyrone.
When Liam Kearns took over as Tipp senior boss following the departure of Peter Creedon last year, the building blocks were in place.
Losing O’Riordan was a blow but nobody could begrudge him that opportunity but the ripple effect saw Seamus Kennedy and Steven O’Brien commit to the hurlers while Liam Casey, Jason Lonergan and Kevin Fahey have opted to spend the summer months in the United States.
“To be honest with you, it’s hard for me to even talk about it,” O’Riordan reflects.
“We thought we’d brought them on a good bit but it kind of seems that it’s after falling away a good bit recently, especially with the high-profile names moving on.
“There are still lads on the senior team that would make any team in the country, serious operators. They need to believe more than anything. That’s what we had coming up along, that we could beat anyone.”
The dual situation in Tipperary is an issue that O’Riordan is not afraid to confront. Earlier this year, minor hurling manager Liam Cahill made it clear that it was one code, not both, for prospective dual players. “Absolutely not should a player have to choose at U18, even U21,” O’Riordan insists.
“Hurling and football are both under the umbrella of the GAA and the stance they’ve taken, I’m not sure about.
“It could have been dealt with differently. We proved that there’s a way it can be done if you cooperate like William Maher and David Power did. There was an understanding between them that it could work and we reaped the rewards individually and collectively.
“People have to be in constant communication and instead of trying to make an argument, avoid it and just let them play. It just brings ridiculous stress on young lads.
“I’m sure there were players this year that wanted to play hurling and football. Look at Shane Long, for example. I’m sure he wouldn’t be heading off to France to play in the Euros if he was forced to play hurling only when he was a minor.
“If I said I’d play hurling only, I wouldn’t be over here with the chance to play professional. I’ve always backed that I wanted to play football too and I’ve never regretted the decision.
“Any time I pulled on the blue and gold, it was just as much an honour for me to play football. I think we achieved at underage and if I ever get the chance to play senior again, I’d like to achieve there as well.”
O’Riordan does concede that a choice has to be made at senior level. Kennedy’s already made his mark with the senior hurlers, making his debut against Cork last month, but O’Brien didn’t make the match-day 26.
“I’ve no begrudgery against Steven or Seamus, two of the nicest and most genuine lads you’ll meet,” says O’Riordan. “They’ll give everything for Tipp and Steven will get his chance as well. He’ll make it, he’s a top man and I’ve no doubt he’ll make it. But to be honest, when it comes to senior, you have to make a decision.”
There are some things about the GAA that O’Riordan doesn’t miss, like being “dogged” at training sessions when the mind might say ‘no’ and the body likewise.
“There’s a lot of things different here that I’d love to bring back to the GAA,” he says. “Like, try this, try that. There are a lot of things going on with overtraining but the way they look at it here, it’s two months of hard training and then the emphasis is on recovery, recovery, recovery.
“There’s no such thing as dogging a lad on a Tuesday or Thursday. You go out and do your skills session with the football. It’s to improve you as a footballer and off the pitch, they want to improve you as a person.
“I’m fortunate that I got the chance to join a brilliant club, the culture here is amazing. Everywhere you go, you’re trying to represent the club and be seen as a pillar for the club, to act like a professional.
“Everything is done as a team together, it goes back to the cliché of ‘one in, all in.’ There’s no such thing as making an eejit of yourself playing for the team, everybody backs you up no matter what.
“I felt that with teams in the past but it’s pretty strong over here. And they accepted me straight away, everybody took me under their wing and that was unreal to see.”
O’Riordan is blessed with phenomenal talent but what marked him out as a class apart in Tipperary was his dedication and work-ethic.
Those are the characteristics that will help him succeed but his modesty and humility are other admirable traits.
“I’m not a fan of talking about myself,” he says. “I’m happy enough at the minute, I want to keep working hard and keep having a crack at it, trying to impress. I’m over here to give a crack at AFL and it won’t be for the want of trying if I don’t make it.
“Obviously, I have a few personal goals that I want to achieve myself, simple things like when I want to play, but the small goals along the way will help me to achieve my ultimate goal.”
Kennelly’s not the only Irish influence on O’Riordan Down Under, as he’s frequently in touch with fellow exports like Kildare’s Paddy Brophy, who plays for the West Coast Eagles.
“It’s only when you move away that you really realise how strong and tight a community the Irish lads are,” O’Riordan adds. “They’d send you a text, a simple message to see how you’re going. That gives you a big lift.”
Despite the intense nature of what he does, there’s still time to relax and unwind. O’Riordan managed to see RTÉ’s Toughest Trade documentary, when Tipp hurling captain Brendan Maher linked up with the Adelaide Strikers for a cricket stint. What resonated with O’Riordan was Maher’s description of the almost monastic way of life for an intercounty player around alcohol.
In Australia, a few drinks at appropriate times is not frowned upon. In fact, in many cases, it’s encouraged as part of the bonding process.
“There’s no issue with it,” O’Riordan says. “There are certain alcohol policies within the club but if you have an eight-day break, you’re allowed to go and have a few drinks.
“After all, it’s your job and you should be allowed to unwind after work and show up for work in good working condition the week after. That’s one main difference from the GAA and Brendan highlighted it perfectly. If he was caught in Thurles even a month before the first round of the Munster championship, can you imagine what people would say? But you have to unwind too, and live a life.
“Of course, you have to know when you can and can’t. Some people might take advantage and go out five days before, that’s when it’s an issue but three weeks or a month before a game isn’t. It’s strange to think that amateur athletes don’t feel that they can go out and enjoy themselves with their friends and have a good time.”
But O’Riordan is the antidote to the stereotypical party animal in the sport, that guy with the ‘work hard, play hard’ approach. If he was in any way indisciplined, there’s no way that O’Riordan would be in the position he is now, a driven, professional athlete with the potential to achieve great things.
“The big thing here with me is food. You go into a restaurant anywhere and get the best food, regardless. A lot of my life revolves around eating properly and getting proper food.
“When I get up, it’s eggs avocado and a couple of slices of toast to get me going, a good bit of protein in there too. The club provide you with lunch and now I’m sitting down to eat my dinner. There’s snacking in between but I try to keep as much healthy food as possible. I wouldn’t be eating much rubbish but tea-bags are in constant demand.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” O’Riordan grins. “But I’m after changing code from Barrys Tea to Twinings!”
Sometimes, in a world where boxes need to be ticked and goals fulfilled, it’s the simple things.
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