Tadhg Kennelly was one of the bravest early Gaelic football pioneers who made it big in Aussie Rules. Now he’s ready for a new cross-code, cross-hemisphere challenge.
Tadhg Kennelly is retired but he’s still getting used to it. Standing on County Kerry’s Ballybunion Beach on a bitterly cold winter’s morning, Ireland’s only Australian Football League (AFL) Premiership winner surveys the miles of wet sand he pounded up and down for year after year, whipping himself into shape for another body-slamming season of “footie”, and contemplates aloud the possibility of a little jog just for old time’s sake. He’s already wearing a pair of trainers, so blowing the cobwebs off with a quick tilt against the biting Atlantic wind is convenient and appealing, especially as, for once, there’s no pressure on him to do it, no nagging training schedule drumming its fingers in his conscience. But: “Nah, I don’t have to do it and that’s exactly why I’m not going to,” he says. “I think I might head to the pub for a couple of hot whiskeys instead.”
The decision is punctuated with raucous laughter, an infectious trademark guffaw that peppers the conversation of an affable, engaging man invigorated by the new possibilities of life unfolding before him as an ex-AFL player and the giddy realisation that his ravaged body will now be allowed to mend itself.
“My joints are very loose,” he explains. “I’m constantly dislocating fingers and my shoulder dislocated about nine times in 2008. I had surgery at the end of that season. So my body has been through a lot. I’ve had 15 sports operations. Shoulder, knee over-use; groin [injuries]. Nerve endings. I’ve been all over the world and cut open. They’re very good medically [at Sydney Swans, his club]. I’ve been sent to America, Germany and China for surgery. They don’t care about the cost. They just get you the best. And I’ve never had any problems. I’ve gone in and got it done and they’ve fixed it.”
So now he can turn his back on a blast down the beach without guilt, the dreaded ladder interval sessions already a fast-fading memory.
At just 30 years of age, Kennelly’s had a good innings by AFL standards but at home in Kerry, where there is only one code, the speculation has been relentless that he will attempt a reprise of his successful one-off 2009 campaign for an All Ireland Football medal with the county team. Even if he does don the green and gold sometime in the future, you sense that the sheer violence of Aussie Rules physical preparation can never be repeated. He stretched out his sojourn at the top level longer than most and to extend it further would be tempting fate.
“The average lifespan of an AFL career is four years,” he says. “The turnover is huge. I was lucky because until I was 26 I had nothing and then probably the last four years I started noticing wear and tear.
“The enormous distances we were travelling… We were running between 15 and 24km per game, 25 weeks in a row. And that’s without getting any bump or tackle. You get to cope with it because you have a massive pre-season that goes on for three months.”
Read the full story in April's issue of The Red Bulletin.