Last week, the coronavirus pandemic brought Australia's 'footy' season to a temporary close after just one round of action. For now, it's just a waiting game. Collingwood's Anton Tohill returned home last week and was out training on the roads around his Swatragh home. He spoke to Michael McMullan about this hopes and progress...
Last Friday morning, thousands of miles from the banks of Melbourne's Yarra River, Collingwood's Anton Tohill was still clocking up the miles.
At the end of a few 'head-spinning' days in airports, on flights and keeping tabs on the uncertainty of salary negotiations, Tohill set-off on a run from the family home on Swatragh's Moneysharvan Road.
Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the AFL had initially cut their 23-game season down to 17. Each game would have four minutes shaved off each quarter, to accommodate the possibility of two fixtures being oxtered into the same week.
It was wishful thinking. A closing of borders within Australia and with non-essential travel being cut, the season was always going to be under scrutiny. After Collingwood's 86-34 win over Western Bulldogs, the pause button was pressed. For how long, its anyone's guess.
Tohill and fellow 'Magpie', Cork's Mark Keane, were among seven Irish players who set-off, via Abu Dhabi, on their way home. It was a case of get home before you can't.
Another Derry man, Callum Brown of Sydney based GWS Giants, was soon in transit back to Ireland. On a different note, Hawthorn's Conor Glass is still stranded 'down under'.
The AFL are going to sit tight until Monday, April 27 for a decision on whether the season actually re-starts at the end of June.
Tohill is now in the second season of a two-year category B rookie contract – one given to players coming from other sports. Also on Friday, the previously anticipated news of pay cuts for AFL players was confirmed.
“The AFL PA, our players' union, were negotiating with the AFL as to what the pay structure is going to look like,” said Tohill, who described the cuts as 'pretty extensive'.
It will bring a 50 percent reduction for the first two months, followed by a cut of 70 percent every month they are out of action after that. Once action resumes, it is back to half-pay. AFL CEO Gillion McLachlan has agreed to take the same cut.
“My annual salary (cut) would be whatever the players are taking,” McLachlan stated in an interview on afl.com.au.
BACK HOME IN DERRY
For Tohill, he was grateful for how Collingwood dealt with his decision to return home, while i's were being dotted back in Australia.
“The club were very good, they said 'go home anyway', because they knew we were going to be tight for time and the airlines were going to be stopping.
“They were pretty supportive in getting me home, knowing I have a good support network around me and a roof over my head when I got home. It was better than laying around there, in Melbourne, with all that uncertainty and without my family.”
Tohill's father Anthony was on the books of Melbourne Demons, before returning home to help Eamonn Coleman lead Derry to their first and only All-Ireland title.
His mother Sinead is one of the McElhinney family from Craigbane, for whom he played until U10 level. There was always a likelihood of a gravitation towards sport.
Anton attended Altinure PS and when the family moved to Swatragh, he transferred to St Patrick's Maghera. He won D'Alton, Corn na nÓg and Brock Cup medals – as well as an Ulster U20 success with Derry. Academically, he also blossomed and he currently still has an offer to study medicine at QUB.
“(Studying) Medicine alongside full-time sport isn't going to work and especially when you have to pay international fees and the expense with that. I basically decided I would wait until I came home to do it.”
Tohill was snapped up via a trial process initiated with a 'combine' held at UCD in Dublin and has been with Collingwood for 18 months. During his first season, he studied sport as part of an educational link through the club.
“This year, I was going to do a cert in personal training and I was going to use it when I came home,” Tohill points out.
“They dedicate people at the club to set those things up for you. We get money from the players' association to make sure we are not too much out of pocket.”
Tohill is loving the lifestyle of living as a professional athlete and aims to spend as long as he can in Australia, but his contract is up at the end of the season.
“The whole thing is in limbo now, so we will have to see what happens going forward with the contract,” he added, without any definite news on a resumption of the season.
He is very 'thankful and grateful' for how his career has gone to date.
“It is everything you expected and wee bit more on top of it. I have signed for a massive organisation and I am very lucky to have got the opportunity to play there.”
The first team play their games in front of over 80,000 people on a regular basis.
“You have the big supporter base behind you, coming to watch you train all the time and the media scrutiny that goes with that,” Tohill adds.
“It is everything you'd expect that way, from everything inside and outside the club. Your diet, how you look after your body...it is all of those things.
“The analysis and the statistics-based sport science is huge and probably more so than I thought it was going to be. It has moved on very far from when my father was there and probably all professional sport has.”
Anton has played for the club's VFL (reserve) side but has yet to make his competitive senior debut. He did figure for the first team in a pre-season game against Carlton, scoring a goal in the process.
It was the first time cutting my teeth against the elite, which was great for my development
“It was their big names against our big names and it was great to be involved in that,” he continued. “It was the first time cutting my teeth against the elite, which was great for my development.”
His parents saw him in VFL action 'a couple of times' during their visit last year and more recently they saw their son in the number 43 shirt again, as part of Collingwood's final preparations for the 2020 season.
“It is good for them to see me play this year. I am a bit better, with more experience and I am playing a different role, which I have taken to pretty well.
“I am playing in the midfield now, it is better suited to my traits and how I can bring my strengths to the game.”
Last year, he played primarily as a centre half-forward, with a further role as a 'ruckman' for the throw-ups at restarts in the games.
When Tohill arrived on Australian soil, he was 6' 6” and weighing '82 or 83' kilograms. Now, he is an inch taller and is tipping the scales at 93kg. In the ruck, he was giving away up to four inches and close to 20 kilos against opponents.
“I was a wee bit under-matched, but in this role now I am the winger. It is the midfielder here in Gaelic football. You can be the seventh attacker to the seventh defender.”
Personally, Tohill is happy with where he is at after his time both on the pitch and in the gym.
“It is quite a big difference,” he said, in terms of his gains. “You measure yourself on your weight and how you are lifting in the gym. It is fantastic when you are able see the difference.”
When and if the season resumes, it is just a matter of waiting his turn for that golden chance to make his first appearance.
“The coaches have all been very positive with me, in what I have been able to achieve this year thus far in that midfield role.
“It has been a very positive start to the year for me. The coaches were pretty satisfied with how I played in that AFL practice match (against Carlton), so things are looking up for an opportunity.
“You don't know what is going to happen, when football is going to start back and what it is going to look like when it does.”
Keeping in shape at home is now the priority. With the pre-season in the tank, a lull could see fitness levels drop. Not what a rookie trying to break into the first team of one of the AFL's biggest clubs needs. Clocking up the miles is the easy bit in the rural Derry countryside.
“I don't know what I am going to do about a gym, that's the big thing. All the gyms are shut and so is the club (Swatragh) so I don't know how I am going to lift weights.”
In the AFL, the gym is an extension of yourself. Up to five sessions a week, working on both upper and lower body strength and power. It's a must.
“It is still my development phase,” Tohill stresses. “It is very important for me to keep pushing on with that. I am making up the ground against the older players in the team. They are so much older and you have to get your body in the right shape to complete and this (time at home) would be the ideal opportunity to do it.”
Maybe it was time to follow the Rocky school of training.
“I might go over the farmyard and start dead-lifting hay bales and chest-pressing cows,” Tohill jokes.
For now, it is all about a taste of home for the next month, getting the miles in the legs. And hoping he gets a chance to make his mark in the AFL.
- Tohill could be set for a career down under. Click here...
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