Portlaoise ready to go distance with St Vincent’s

Aussie Rules star Zac Tuohy available for Laois champions in Leinster club football quarter-final against Dublin title-holders

No club or county likes to put a limit on the distance they will go in search of success. Not even the 10,000 miles or so, there and back, from Melbourne to Portlaoise.

It certainly seemed that way, as word emerged earlier this week that Portlaoise star Zach Tuohy, who now plays professionally in Australia with Carlton FC, was being flown back home by his club just in time for Sunday’s Leinster championship quarter-final against St Vincent’s.

Such is their craving for victory – especially against Dublin opposition – it wasn’t an unreasonable distance, or proposition.

Sunday’s game is also a repeat of last year’s Leinster club final, which Portlaoise only narrowly lost. St Vincent’s then went on to claim the All-Ireland and recently claimed back-to- back Dublin football titles for the first time in 37 years.


Didn’t feature

Tuohy would unquestionably strengthen their chances, even though he didn’t feature for Portlaoise when they won their eighth successive Laois county title last month, as by then he had returned to Melbourne.

However, Tuohy did play in both the quarter-final and semi-final of the Laois championship – scoring in both games – and given the task at hand on Sunday, even with home advantage in Portlaoise, they could hardly afford to be without him.

Yet the truth about Tuohy’s availability for Sunday is a little less extreme, according to Portlaoise manager Tommy Conroy. It turns out Tuohy was back home anyway, for personal reasons, and was always likely to play some role on Sunday, as Portlaoise look to end their recent hoodoo against Dublin opposition.

“Yeah, there was that story going around about some midnight chopper run to Australia and back, or whatever,” says Conroy.

“It was actually just a total PR spin from one of the club sponsors. Because Zach was always going to be around, actually. He was back in Australia for a while, as he was best man at a wedding back there, and so missed our county final.

“But he’s been back here since and around training with us these past few weeks. His own sister was getting married, last Saturday week and his young fella was also being christened back here.

Stuck in

“So to be honest we always knew we would have Zach for this game. Of course it’s great to have him, because he does bring a lot to the team. He’s always willing to get stuck in, which is fantastic from our point of view.”

For Conroy (not be confused with the Tommy Conroy who manages St Vincent’s), there is already something of a comeback theme to this campaign. He previously managed the Laois club in the 2004-2005 season, which finished up with the narrow two-point loss in the All-Ireland club final to then Mayo champions Ballina Stephenites.

Since then, despite winning eight county titles in succession, Portlaoise have only once won back the Leinster title, in 2009. Indeed they’ve been knocked out by Dublin opposition for the past four years, starting with Kilmacud Crokes in 2010, then St Brigid’s in 2011, Ballymun Kickhams in the 2012 final, and again St Vincent’s in last year’s final.

It’s also 31 years since Portlaoise won its first and only All- Ireland club title, although they still proudly and justifiably declare themselves the most successful football club in Leinster, with a record seven provincial titles (’71, ’76, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’04, ’09).

After losing to St Vincent’s last year, co-managers Mick Lillis and Mark Kavanagh (members of that 1983 All-Ireland winning team) stepped aside, and with that the door opened for Conroy again.

“It was a big decision to come back, yeah,” he says. “I went away for a while and worked with the underage teams again, but in the back of your mind you are thinking would you go again or did you have your time?

“I’d family and other commitments to think about, but then when Mick and Mark stepped down I felt, right, I’d give it another go.”

More silverware

Under-achievement is a bit of a dirty word in any sport, although Portlaoise would be the first to admit they should have more silverware to go with their eight county titles.

They’ve had their struggles off the field, too, still recovering from heavy debts accumulated in 2009, when the proposed €19 million sale of their 17.2 acre site next to O’Moore Park fell through.

The club had already been advanced €6.5 million, which was put towards the purchase of a 39-acre club site at Rathleague.

For now, Conroy is content just be starting into another provincial campaign. “So far, so good, yeah. And I know it’s a cliche, but when you start out, every year, you can only think about taking it one game at a time. You can never think about winning back another championship until you’re actually in the final.

“Thankfully we got over Arles-Killeen, but it’s straight back into the frying pan now, with St Vincent’s. We’ve home advantage, but as All-Ireland champions, St Vincent’s are well used to playing on the road.

“I suppose, yeah, the Portlaoise pitch would be a bit more familiar to us, but if you’re depending on the pitch to beat St Vincent’s, then you’re in trouble.”

And that much is definitely true. No PR spin there.