Barry O’Connor primed for AFL success with Sydney Swans

‘Sometimes I find myself just wanting to take that run and trying to sidestep someone’

 Barry O’Connor’s affable nature has made him a popular figure at the Swans with players and staff:   Photograph: Inpho

Barry O’Connor’s affable nature has made him a popular figure at the Swans with players and staff: Photograph: Inpho

 

The seemingly idyllic lifestyle that Wexford’s Barry O’Connor signed up for at the AFL’s Sydney Swans has changed irrevocably in a matter of months. His first training sessions were conducted in a city shrouded with smoke from raging bushfires, and then the AFL season was postponed indefinitely by the coronavirus. O’Connor’s first year in Sydney has not been what he originally anticipated, but he remains sanguine about life as a professional athlete.

“I remember when the season stopped, I was actually sitting with Colin [O’Riordan] in the club and we heard it on the news. We knew it was coming and I suppose it worked like any other industry, we were called into the club, and we were told that we would be away for an indefinite period. Looking back, it was a strange period, but equally, we knew that it wasn’t just AFL affected as an industry so you quickly came to terms with it.”

Just before an enforced lockdown across Australia in March, O’Connor was visited by his Dad, George, an All-Ireland winner with Wexford hurlers in 1996, and his Mum, Ellen. In his first year away from home, the perfectly timed visit of his parents bolstered his resolve to stay in Sydney throughout the lockdown rather than join some of the Irish AFL fraternity and get on the first plane back to Ireland while they could.

The Sydney Swans, like every other AFL club in the country, must now follow strict protocols

“I have been fortunate here in that I have never really felt homesick. To be fair, it was great timing that Mum and Dad were able to come over in March just before the lockdown and everything happened, as I don’t know how I would have fared not being able to see them until at least the end of the year . . . It was brilliant just to show them around the club, and the life that I am living here. Dad also was roped into doing some coaching with one of the local camogie clubs here in Sydney, which he enjoyed.”

The Sydney Swans, like every other AFL club in the country, must now follow strict protocols for all players and staff to ensure that the season is not postponed again due to any risk of infection. O’Connor trains with the club and does his grocery shopping, but simple pleasures such as socialising, surfing and golf are all banned for the moment for all players.

O’Connor is still gradually learning his craft as an AFL footballer and spends hours refining in-built motor skills that have been conditioned to kick an O’Neill’s football around the body, rather than the rigid front-on kicking style favoured in Australian football. It is extremely rare for even a decorated Australian rookie to make their senior AFL debut in their first season, and O’Connor has had to learn patience.

Growing up in Wexford, O’Connor excelled at football but was also a talented hurler for UCD and a junior rugby player for Wexford Wanderers. He has had to go back to the drawing board and build his skills slowly almost from scratch. In doing so, he has found an ally in Tipperary’s Colin O’Riordan, now an integral part of the Sydney Swans starting line-up.

“I don’t think you will find a harder worker in the club than Colin. And I take huge inspiration from watching how he trains and pushes himself to his limits. Colin has a thing where he will never rest on his laurels, as he knows just how competitive this game is at a senior level.

Colin O’Riordan of the Swans celebrates kicking a goal against Essendon Bombers at Sydney Cricket Ground last year. File photograph: Getty
Colin O’Riordan of the Swans celebrates kicking a goal against Essendon Bombers at Sydney Cricket Ground last year. File photograph: Getty

“The thing that I have found really helpful from Colin more than anything is the psychological part of the game. He knows how frustrating it can be if you’re not quite getting something, or making mistakes, and trust me I’m making a few of them. Colin has been a really great person to talk to and just to trust in the process of learning this game, so I can’t really think of anyone better to learn from than him.”

There are some strong similarities between Gaelic football and Australian football in terms of spatial awareness and marking ability. But there are infinitely far more differences, primarily in terms of increased physicality, field shape, team structure, marking and, evidently, the ball shape. O’Connor finds that his brain is still hard-wired to habits that were forged in Wexford GAA fields that sometimes do not translate well on the hard training track beside the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Here I am training as a defender, so you have to be careful to take the right option

“A big issue I think a lot of GAA players have when they move to AFL is playing on with the ball, rather than slowing down and taking the mark. For me it’s just that instinctive thing, in football back home I was an attacker, so you always want to take on your man and beat them. Here I am training as a defender, so you have to be careful to take the right option. Sometimes I find myself just wanting to take that run and trying to sidestep someone, then running into trouble in a tackle. It’s a case of just getting used to a different process, although someone like [Tyrone’s] Conor McKenna is outstanding in the AFL because he plays so much on the footballing instinct from back home, so I equally don’t want to lose all of it.”

His background in GAA is a talking point in the house that he shares with three other Swans rookies

O’Connor’s affable nature has made him a popular figure at the Swans with players and staff. And at the start of the year he travelled to some of New South Wales’s worst-hit towns by the bushfires to undertake physical labour with his team-mates to assist farmers. His background in GAA is a talking point in the house that he shares with three other Swans rookies in the beachside suburb of Maroubra. O’Connor’s young Australian housemates have enjoyed watching GAA, particularly O’Connor’s curated hurling highlights from YouTube.

“My team-mates really love watching it, particularly the hurling, as it’s something they’ve never really seen. It’s interesting when you explain the GAA to them, as I suppose it is just such a uniquely Irish thing. I tell them how hard we trained back home, and explain the games and things, then that we didn’t do it for pay, but for the pride of playing for your county and club, and it’s just a different world. Back home when I look back, I can’t believe what I did, playing football and hurling as a fresher at UCD and travelling back to Wexford for football for training and games. I was training every night and then trying to study for my degree as well. Maybe because of all that I was able to adjust to being a professional athlete here, as I just have loved that time to refine your game and focus on recovery.”

O’Connor will soon play his first proper full-scale Australian football practice match against cross-town rivals the GWS Giants which will give him a good idea of how far he can plot his progress in his new sport. Far from friends and family, he has adapted seamlessly to the Swans’ famed culture off the field and is determined to make Sydney his home as a professional footballer for years to come.

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