THE SECOND game of football Mark O'Connor attended was the 2016 Grand Final, with the then Irish hopeful brought to Melbourne to experience the biggest stage. He watched alongside other local draftees as the Western Bulldogs broke their 62-year premiership drought in an emotional victory over Sydney.

Four years on and the 51st game that O'Connor plays will be Saturday night's Toyota AFL Grand Final, with the international product now a key part of Geelong's defence, one of its rising stars and a member of its leadership group.

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O'Connor admits that early taste of football's grandest event didn't quite open his eyes to the meaning of winning an AFL premiership, with his focus in 2016 on the NAB AFL Draft Combine several days later and his audition for Cats scouts.

A young Mark O'Connor at the 2016 NAB AFL Draft Combine. Picture: AFL Photos

"I didn't really know what was going on at the time, but I was actually over here for the Combine at that stage. The AFL was good enough to bring me there and watch that so that's probably my earliest memory," O'Connor told

"I probably got more of a grasp on [the impact of a Grand Final] when I moved out here and how important it was to people and how happy it actually made people. It probably wasn't until later that it really dawned on me."

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O'Connor is well aware now as the Cats pursue their first premiership since 2011. And so are his family, who will watch the match from Dingle, a small town in the southwest of Ireland. The 23-year-old said the match will be beamed into his family's living room across the world for an early start.

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"It would be 9:30am there so it's a pretty good time. My brothers will roll out of bed and into the sitting room to watch, so it's a pretty good time for them," he said.

"I don't think they can have too many people in the one place with the COVID restrictions that are at home, but the family will be together certainly and even my uncle Jim will call up as well.

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"I have a very strong connection with my home town in Dingle and the people there. Even this week the response to making the Grand Final hasn't changed – they've gotten around me and supported me as much as they always have, so Dingle's very much ingrained in who I am and it's still very much home and the people there are all very special to me."

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It is one reason why O'Connor, who became a staple of Geelong's backline last year before being elevated to the club's leadership group for 2020, has found being on the road throughout this year a simpler task than others.

"Australia's a hub in a sense for me coming out here, because I don't have any family or anything out here," he said.

"It has had its challenges and I think it's challenged everyone at different stages. Again, it's a bit different when you don’t have family to be taking care of and worrying about over here. I was probably one of the luckier ones in that sense."

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There's been less luck in his form line, with O'Connor lifting to be one of the Cats' best in their preliminary final defeat to Richmond last year and taking that confidence into 2020.

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"While it wasn't the best result it probably helped me in my progression just to know I could do it on the big stage," O'Connor said.

So much so, that last week against the Lions he was also able to enjoy a more light-hearted moment as the cameras captured the defender listening in as Brisbane's forwards set up their plan in a huddle. Although he's unsure how successful that attempt was.

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"I didn't hear a thing but I pretended like I did. That was just to annoy the forwards a small bit, but I didn't actually pick up anything. They noticed and they gave me a bit of a smack afterwards as well, so I felt that," he said.