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Sonia O’Sullivan: Nothing beats a home victory, even when it’s so far away

Success of Irish rowers now reminds me of our athletes’ inspirational feats in the 80s

Richmond Tigers celebrate with the the AFL Premiership Cup after winning the 2017 AFL Grand Final against the Adelaide Crows at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photograph: Scott Barbour/AFL Media/Getty

It seems no matter what side of the world I’m on these days I find myself caught up in the thick of the home sporting action. 

It’s hard to miss out on anything with the near instant updates on social media.

 Depending on how strict one is with their phone, the only time things pass you by are when you are sleeping, then either by choice or accident you are quickly right back up to speed. Still nothing beats being in or around there.

 So, from being immersed in the women’s Gaelic football final one week, I found myself similarly immersed in the build-up to the AFL Grand final last weekend. From Croke Park to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), each a Mecca of their own sporting world, on near opposite sides of the planet.

 The environment that you find yourself in can also change the energy and mood, and in this case, allowed me to become a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience – given it was 37 years in the making for the passionate, desperate and vociferous supporters of the Richmond Tigers, my local Australian Rules football club. 

They last won the Grand Final 37 years ago – and it felt a bit like Mayo’s still elusive wait for the All-Ireland football title. The whole town of Richmond was painted yellow and black while the opponents from Adelaide, far away in another state, an hour-flight and oddly a half-hour time zone away, hardly got a look in locally. 

At least not until they took their power stance face-off with Richmond while the Australian national anthem was sung in front of 100,000 fans packed in to the MCG.

 It was impossible to get a ticket at the last minute, but there were big screens and venues popping up all over the place: Tigerland, as it’s known, was spreading far beyond the boundary of Punt Road Oval, the training ground of the Richmond Tigers, a mere stone’s throw from the MCG. 

When I first lived in Australia nearly 20 years ago, I was just across the road in Richmond, and on a still Friday night you would often hear the roar from the stadium.

 I also used to train in the Richmond gym, so by locality alone I assigned myself to be a Richmond supporter. Just like at home you cheer for your local team, support those where you come from, or at least feel like you do. 

For all the talk and fear of the flight of Irish GAA footballer to the AFL, there wasn’t a single Irish player in this year’s Grand Final. The closest to get there was Zach Touhy, who plays for Geelong, who were knocked out by Richmond in the quarter-finals.

Earlier in the week I rode my bike through Richmond to witness the transformation. Every light pole was wrapped in yellow and black, every shop windows dressed to impress. Two days out from the final and people were already walking around in jerseys, hats and scarves. 

Big occasion

The excitement of the semi-final win was spilling out onto the streets. Just one week before Richmond had overcome Greater Western Sydney, one of the newer teams in the championship, just eight years old, and so lacking the history and massive fan base that Richmond have built up since their formation in 1885.

 If there was ever a case for supporters having a share in the victory this was it, with Richmond taking 90,000 of the available 95,000 tickets. 

The Richmond fans were also determined to repeat their presence at the Grand Final, and there was comparatively very little talk of the Adelaide Crows, even though statistically they were the favoured team based on their season. Of course that counts for nothing on final day. 

Either way, a long drought was about to end; the 37-year wait for Richmond, the 19-year wait for Adelaide – although the Adelaide women’s team won the very first AFLW Grand final earlier this year. Truth is I’ve never been fanatical about the AFL, but I do love the big occasion, the build-up, the anticipation, all the experts sharing their views. This game had all that and more. 

Just a few weeks earlier I’d been walking around Barley Lake near Glengarriff, getting regular updates from the quarter-final game between Geelong and Richmond on my phone, via a friend in Australia. 

I was caught between the updates and paying attention to the not-so-obvious path around the lake. When I finally got to put the phone away I suddenly realised I couldn’t find my car, lost in the beauty in the wilds of west Cork. This is what happens when you think you’re missing nothing. 

The only AFL Grand final I’ve attended before was on the eve of the Sydney Olympics, in 2000, just something to do between training sessions in Melbourne before flying up to Sydney. 

In recent years, some friends have put on a Grand Final Party, always something to look forward to. On arrival you put a few dollars in the pot, pick a team, the winning margin, and the best player on the ground. Then there’s always enough vested interest for everyone to stay engaged throughout the game. 

The quarter and semi-finals suggested that if Richmond were to win, it was going to be by a big margin, so I selected Richmond to win by 41 points. In the end they won by 48 points. There was nothing the Crows could do to stop the mighty Tigers run riot in their home ground. 

Earlier in the day, I had joined a few park runners wearing their team colours around the Albert Park Lake. It was easy for me to dress up in my very own yellow and black of Ballymore Cobh AC. 

Irish rowers

While running around a friend came past updating me on the overnight success of Irish rowers at the World Championships in Florida. Two gold medals, this time on another side of the world again, but again the information was coming through thick and fast, and it felt like another home victory of sorts. 

This is another example of how success can breed success.

The success of rowing in Ireland right now reminds me of a little of the 1980s, when Ireland regularly picked up athletics medals and headlined international races on the indoor US circuit, thanks to the likes of Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara, Paul Donovan. These are the athletes that inspired me, instilled the belief that where there is a will, there is always a way. 

Rowing Ireland and particularly the Skibbereen base in Cork and the National Rowing Centre in Iniscarra have seen what is possible, invested and instilled this belief in their rowers. 

Similar in some ways to Richmond Football Club. They are a tight-knit club, know it’s not just all about themselves, and by embracing each other and the massive support they were able to overcome the enormity of the pressure of a Grand Final, ignore the form book and simply play football . 

There is more to elite sport than perfection in preparation. There is also the human element that cannot be ignored, and if fully embraced can raise the bar and achieve things that don’t always look so obvious on paper.