AMID the rubble of Geelong's third quarter in last year's preliminary final loss to Richmond, a new leader emerged.

A 22-year-old Irishman playing his 30th game in the AFL.

Holding a 21-point buffer at the main break, the Cats blew their premiership hopes in 30 minutes as the Tigers kicked five goals to one.

When the Cats leaders went quiet and allowed the Tigers to wrestle back momentum, it was defender Mark O'Connor who stood firm.

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"The big thing that I always rate when I'm voting for the boys (in leadership) is how they perform probably first of all," captain Joel Selwood told the club's season launch in March.

"Behaviour for me can become a little bit distant to that because you guys (fans) need us to perform to get the best out of ourselves.

"When times were at their toughest last year and we didn't quite get there, that third quarter against Richmond, he (O'Connor) was holding up the dam wall to be honest.

When you watch it back you get quite embarrassed that he's the guy repelling the ball quite a bit. He was outstanding during that quarter in what he did and how he stood up

- Joel Selwood on Mark O'Connor

On the same night Selwood re-told that memory, O'Connor was added to Geelong's seven-man leadership group.

It includes Selwood, Patrick Dangerfield, Mitch Duncan, Mark Blicavs, Zach Tuohy, Tom Stewart and now O'Connor.

A significant jump for a youngster who less than 18 months earlier had been forced to contemplate his football future in Australia.

"When you look around the room, the calibre of people in there is exceptional and it's a great learning experience for me," O'Connor told AFL.com.au this week.

"To hear those guys speak in that forum is eye-opening because you're discussing things I wouldn't have thought about beforehand and bigger picture topics that impact the whole club."

In the off-season of 2018, O'Connor was granted permission to return home just days after the Cats' elimination final loss to Melbourne – his seventh AFL match.

Five days prior to the Cats' best and fairest on October 4 – one he was excused from – O'Connor played Gaelic football for Dingle in their Kerry County senior championship semi-final win and was forced to apologise to the Cats when they found out.

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"I've reflected on that quite a bit. In the context I was in at the time, it was just something I felt I had to do," he said.

"I can't say I regret it, it was very special for me and my family at home.

"It was a big occasion and I actually made a big decision not to play after that, there were two games remaining in the championship.

"I made a really tough decision to not play in those because in that timeframe I had to take some counsel from family and those closest to me about making a decision because ultimately if I did play it meant that maybe Geelong didn't want me anymore.

"That was actually one of the toughest sporting decisions I've had to make. It probably solidified that I did want to be in Geelong."

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Twelve months on, not only did O'Connor return, he enjoyed a breakout season as a lock in the Cats' defensive system and finds himself in the club's leadership group.

Despite strongly considering following the lead of his fellow Irishmen and returning home for the AFL shutdown, O'Connor has opted to stay in Geelong.

With housemates and teammates Oscar Brownless and Charlie Constable returning to their families in Melbourne, he has found a training ally in neighbour and Cats defender Jack Henry.

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"I actually enjoy training so I try and do something every day," he said.

"I run every second day and that's partly out of interest and partly because I've had tendinitis in my knees and my tendons don't really like prolonged breaks, it just makes me feel good.

"Then there's circuits, weights and some leg strengthening exercises after I run."

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Coach Chris Scott has been vocal in recent weeks advising his Geelong players not to burn themselves out during the shutdown window.

In the knowledge that the break between the 2020 and 2021 seasons could be drastically cut, O'Connor has broadened his horizons.

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"At the minute I'm trying to find purpose elsewhere outside of footy," O'Connor said.

"I've actually tried to take up the piano, that's one of the things I'm trying to do elsewhere.

"I'm also quite lucky my brother is a nutritionist and he has an Instagram page where he's been putting up recipes of different foods and healthier option for snacks.

"I've been doing some baking with that which I'm really enjoying."

Mark O'Connor's peanut butter protein bars. Picture: Supplied