Time flies when you’re having fun. It certainly has for Portlaoise footballer Zach Tuohy. Where did the last ten years go?
This weekend Zach, the pride of the Town, is himself characteristically humble about it all, but as ambitious as ever nevertheless, as he faces in to his tenth Aussie Rules season.
To say that Zach is a star of the AFL code is an understatement, he’s a superstar, and they just lap him up and love him Down Under.
The players, the press, the public can’t get enough of the gutsy defender whose wit is as sharp as his tackling and turn of direction.
His full-on commitment and courage on the pitch coupled with his consideration and charm outside the oval have made Zach a popular character with fans and a handful to cope with for opponents.
To say that this is a big year for Zach is also an understatement, this is a huge season for the teenager turned awesome unit. Forget about the footy – well for a minute anyway – as Zach and Rebecca and their 5-year-old Flynn are expecting their second child any day now and the loved-up couple have just finalised the purchase of their new home in Geelong, within a stone’s throw of ‘work’.
“A busy few months alright, I guess it’s all happening,” says Zach in yet another understatement
It’s safe to say that Zach is going to have his hands full this spring, this summer, this season and that’s just changing nappies and getting their new home sorted.
And if all that’s not enough on his plate Zach is still nursing a post-op knee surgery carried out in the off season. While he talks about these things taking time you can still detect a hint of frustration that his recovery to full fitness has not come in time for the season opener.
After seven seasons at Carlton and facing in to his third on the roster with the Geelong Cats, Zach has had to accept that his 138 consecutive games record setting stretch of unbroken run of games going back as far as 2012 has come to an end.
By any sporting standards that’s some spell, not only to hold down your place but to also remain injury free, in the full-on, full contact AFL it’s almost unheard of.
“Yeah, I guess that streak is over, that’s the way it goes,” shrugs Zach, but you know he is only bursting to be back on the pitch getting stuck in for his team and the sixty thousand signed up card carrying Cat’s supporters club.
“But look, we’re on track after a second clean-up on the knee as is standard with these kind of operations. It was a cartilage issue on the left knee.
“You can’t rush these things, it has to take its course and I will hopefully be back in for the third, fourth or fifth round. It’s taken longer than I’d like but in the general scheme of things it’s not too major,” he says, being totally philosophical and professional about the bigger picture and the longer game.
There is the consolation that Zach remains a key player for the Cats, a first choice in that crucial half-back line once fit and held in high regard by his peers.
For the second season in succession he has been voted on to the team’s leadership group. For him the importance of the role is underpinned by the process by which it’s the players and the coaching staff who elect the leadership group.
These experienced players exemplify and expound the club’s core values, efforts and ethos – on and off the pitch. They are the gatekeepers of all that is good about Geelong. Number 2, Zach Tuohy is at the heart of it.
Ten years on since he left the Town, Zach is constantly mindful of his folks back home, his close friends and players from Portlaoise and Laois that he used togged out alongside.
The physical distance hasn’t weakened those bonds, on the contrary, and there is even a Portarlington up the road from where he lives in Geelong.
However, with a passing decade it is clear too that the Portlaoise defender is putting down roots here too, goals to achieve and an ambition that he would dearly love to fulfil.
“Tadhg Kennelly is the only one to achieve it so far and it would be great to be the second Irishman to win an AFL Premiership,” muses Zach. The Listowel man won his title with the Sydney Swans in 2005, a feat that even eluded the great Jim Stynes, the mighty Melbourne ruckman.
But Zach knows premiership honours are no minor matter. Indeed it’s a tall order in the notoriously competitive and combative AFL.
In the crunch games there is seldom much in it but a crunch tackle, a big mark or a long range bomb between the posts.
Zach himself was at the centre of such a dramatic and sensational finale to a big game last season as Geelong got into an epic tussle with Melbourne.
Melbourne were four up in the dying seconds before Tuohy took a clearance out of the clouds to make a spectacular mark despite the traffic. That was the easy part. With the siren sounded and time up in the fourth quarter there was now only one kick of the ball left in the game.
There was only Zach, his team mates and about seventy thousand fans in the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. No pressure.
Zach punted it straight between the laths from down town. Game over. The Cats won by two, his team mates all over him, Zach was all over the front pages and a household name the next day in the sports crazy city.
“It’s a very even and finely balanced competition always but the view this season is that it’s at the most even in ten years if not in decades, that’s the way the AFL is set up, it’s not like the premiership in the soccer where you have 3 or 4 teams way out ahead of the rest.
“We’re in a group that could go all the way but we’re under no illusions that there are up to 15 teams, any of who could be in the final shake-up. We can certainly mix it with the big boys and that’s the plan.”
Only time will tell. The AFL player draft system as well as other checks and balances are designed to keep the league competitive.
While the reigning champions West Coast Eagles out of Perth didn’t quite come from nowhere, not too many were tipping them to win the title last year, even after they had finished second on the ladder in the regular season.
To state the obvious, it’s all to play for and Zach Tuohy is chomping at the bit to play his part in the Geelong quest for honours which they last tasted in a purple patch which landed them three titles in 2007, 2009 and 2011.
A guided tour around the Geelong grounds by the man himself is seriously impressive. This is on par with any of the other professional codes worldwide.
The complex itself is undergoing a €100m multi-annual upgrade, largely to optimise the use of the facilities and enhance the capacity to around forty-five thousand, something that would ensure more home games.
Geelong are a different prospect on this tight pitch, having only lost two home games during Zach’s tenure. It’s close quarters stuff on that home turf and there’s nowhere to hide, except maybe the far side of the advertising hoardings.
The path to reaching the knock-out stages and the preliminary finals is to make the last eight, preferably the last four in the regular season and then produce your best footie into the knock-outs and the finals.
Just how tough it’s going to be was illustrated on Friday night in Geelong’s opening round against last year’s beaten Grand Finalists, Collingwood. The match was played in front of a crowd of 78,017 in the MCG stadium. They take their Friday night footy seriously in Melbourne.
The Cats trailed by 4.9 (33) to 3.4 (22) at half-time before they were all square 7.10 (52) each at the end of the third.
They went toe to toe and were tied up at 8.11 each in the fourth quarter before the Cats finally edged it 10.12 (72) to 9.11 (65).
This is a tight knit Geelong unit.
Tight games, on tight pitches, need tight markers and marksmen like Tuohy, who make the difference. The difference between winning and losing, when the pressure is on in the full glare of the floodlights when the siren has sounded.
Zach Tuohy can’t wait. This could be his year … and maybe it already is.