“He explained the significance of the match for both his club and his family and just how much it’d mean to him to be able to play. And then asked us whether it’d be worth asking for permission from the club to play.
“We didn’t need to deliberate a whole lot to tell him he had our blessing, and that on the off chance he didn’t get granted permission, we said we’d do all we could to have the club reconsider.”
I get emotional even thinking about it. To me, it’s one of the best days of my life.
With COVID-19 delays giving a rare window of opportunity, O’Riordan was given the Swans’ blessing and, on Monday morning (AEDT), he helped Tipperary create history, beating Cork in the final at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. It was only the third time since 1923 that a county outside the powerhouses of Kerry and Cork had won the title.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve had in many years,” O’Riordan said.
“It just fills me with pride so much, I get emotional even thinking about it. To me, it’s one of the best days of my life.”
The game was filled with many layers of meaning for O’Riordan, who had the chance to rejoin many of the teammates he won an All-Ireland Minor title with in 2011, and lead the county his father, Michael, had once captained, to its first title since 1935.
On top of that, the game also marked the 100th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday Massacre, the darkest day in Gaelic football’s history, when 14 civilians were killed by British forces including, Tipperary player Michael Hogan.
The amateur world of Gaelic football now provides a steady flow of recruits to the AFL. Since moving to Australia in 2015 to play for the Swans, O’Riordan has played 23 senior games.
But the desire of many Irish expats in the AFL to play for one’s county is something inescapable according to Tadgh Kennelly, O’Riordan’s defensive coach the last two seasons.
Kennelly is the only person to have won both an AFL premiership and All-Ireland medal.
That desire and urge to play for your home doesn’t go away.
“It’s taken a long time for AFL clubs to understand the pressure these Irish boys are under,” Kennelly says.
“It’s hard to understand the pull to go and play at home. They go back for two months and it’s so conflicting for them watching their family and friends do what they’ve always dreamed of doing. That desire and urge to play for your home doesn’t go away.”
To those in the AFL system, where 18-year-olds pack their backs on draft night and prepare to move their entire life to play, this desire and connection to place might seem hard to understand.
“It’s tribal,” Kennelly said. “You can live in a small county where there’s a squad of 25 picked, and you can be the 29th guy for years on end, but you wouldn’t go a couple of kilometres up the road to play for another team. You just wouldn’t. You’d be ostracised.”
Kennelly has seen first-hand the impact of this tribalism. There were many naysayers and critics upon his recruitment of O’Riordan to the Swans in 2015, but he hopes this moment can be seen as a positive for all involved.
“I see both sides of it now, and I was a bloke at home in Kerry I’d be disappointed that clubs are stealing talent,” he said.
“But you’re giving a kid the opportunity to be a professional athlete, and if that’s what they want, then that’s the opportunity they should get.
“If anything, I think both he and the club are going to benefit too. There’s obviously the risk of injury, but by him going over and doing what he does he’ll be roaring with confidence when he gets back, and it’ll help with the homesickness too.”
For O’Riordan, the emotion culminated in a heartfelt post-game interview, which would’ve proven even further to his teammates and coaches in Sydney how important this opportunity was.
Wiping tears from the corners of his eyes, the proud Tipperarian said: “To me, it means so much to be able to put on the Tipp jersey. It’s something I will never take for granted, it’s something I’ll respect to the day I die, that I had the opportunity to wear the jersey.”
Brandon Jack is a writer and former Sydney Swan