CONOR Nash had another ‘what if?’ moment last Saturday night while watching Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time on New Zealand soil. But it was only fleeting. In another life, he might have been playing at full-back in Dunedin, instead of sitting at home in Hawthorn eating a bowl of pasta, preparing to face Adelaide at Marvel Stadium the following day. 

The soon-to-be 24-year-old is six years into his time in Australia and now reaping the rewards of his bold decision to turn his back on a potential career in rugby union – or Gaelic Football – to pursue a foreign code in a foreign land, more than 17,000km from home.  

Unlike most Irishmen who pursue an AFL career, Gaelic football wasn't his code of choice. While he is an accomplished player who plans to return to the GAA one day, rugby union was where he had built his reputation to the point where he gave up the opportunity to tour with the national under-18 side to finally accept Hawthorn's contract offer after a long courting process. 

00:37 Mins
Published on

Nash nails Smith in one of the finest chases you'll see

Conor Nash mows down Brodie Smith in this wonderful tackling effort

Published on

While Geelong veteran Zach Tuohy is now within striking distance of Jim Stynes' games record and his teammate Mark O'Connor is a proven commodity, Nash has emerged as the next man from the Emerald Isle to leave his mark on the AFL in 2022, after becoming a permanent fixture in Sam Mitchell's best 22. 

"There have been times when I watch rugby union and wonder ‘what if?’, but you have to pull yourself up and remember why I made this decision. This is the decision I made and I'm really happy and comfortable with it. Could I be playing full back in the series against New Zealand? I back myself in and think I could have, but you don't know. I didn't take that path," Nash told AFL.com.au at Waverley Park this week. 

"You have to stick with it and be all in. That's the advice I would give to all the Irish boys. Twelve months ago I had a year left on my contract, but it wasn't happening at AFL level then it started happening. You have to stick with it and be all in."

Conor Nash gets a handball away during round six, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Nash has been all-in for a long time. It started when Hawthorn first picked up the phone and dialled his family home in Navan, 50km north-west of Dublin. Nash's dad hung up on Mark McKenzie, who was then a recruiter but now the Hawks' list manager, thinking it was a prank call. Why would an AFL club in Melbourne by interested in a 15-year-old Irish kid? McKenzie wasn't deterred. He called again three days later and explained why he was on the other end of the phone. 

>> THE IRISH EXPERIMENT Who's the greatest of all?

"They had Irish recruiters over there watching school games and sending clips back. At the start, 'Macca' (McKenzie) rang dad and said who he was and why he was calling. He wanted to get in touch and start a relationship with me. Would that be of interest? Dad, being an Irishman, thought it was a prank and put the phone down. 'Macca' called again and said he was serious. Mum and Dad told me after that," Nash said as he smiles at the memory. 

"Hawthorn made it very clear that they couldn't promise anything. They told me to keep my studies up, keep playing rugby union, keep playing Gaelic Football. Then when it comes to it at 18, they would see where I was at. I came out a few times with my family, met my host family, trained and went to games before making the decision. 

"It had to be all hush-hush because I didn't want it to come back in my face later on that it wasn't happening. Word eventually gets out when you come out and do two weeks of intensive training. It was difficult trying to juggle everything, keep rugby happy, keep Gaelic Football happy, practice Aussie Rules as well. Having gone through that experience, I think it is the only way to do it, put the resources in from the start."

00:41 Mins
Published on

Irish delight as Nash runs it home

Conor Nash produced a brilliant finish with this crumbing goal extending his side's lead

Published on

Some Irishmen are lured down under by the opportunity to enter a professional full-time environment that Gaelic Football simply doesn't offer. But Nash was already involved with Leinster Rugby, one of the four provincial professional sides in Ireland that also competes in the prestigious Heineken Cup competition across Europe. This made the decision even more difficult. Why give up something that you are so good at for a game you've never played? 

"When it came down to it at 18, I was playing rugby union, Gaelic football at the highest level I could. I came back from my last trip to Australia with a contract offer from Hawthorn. Rugby had always told me to keep them in the loop with this. It was quite clear from a meeting with Leinster that they wanted me to play full-back going forward," he said.

"The only two real options in my mind were the two professional options: rugby or AFL. Initially it's just two years; I thought if it doesn't work out, I could come back to rugby. In that sense it was a free shot. Then it was the whole adventure side of it in Australia."

It has been one hell of an adventure for the 197cm utility. No one whispered anything about a pandemic when he decided to commit to the enormity of relocating. When almost every other Irishman fled home when Melbourne went into lockdown in March 2020, Nash chose to remain here to give him the best chance of being ready to play when the season resumed. That decision to stay meant he didn't return home until the end of last season and didn't see family and friends for the best part of two years. 

Conor Nash tackles Brodie Smith during the round 17 match between Hawthorn and Adelaide at Marvel Stadium on July 10, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Months after taking over the reins from four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson, Sam Mitchell told Nash to head home and stay there until January this year. Nash was apprehensive. After spending most of the year playing under Mitchell at Box Hill, he had just produced the best four-game block of his career after spending the final month of 2021 in the senior side. He had a year to run on his contract and 2022 loomed as make-or-break. The decision to spend three months at home has ended up being just what he needed to launch a breakout season.

"It was huge, because the two years before that I hadn't been home. I didn't go home in lockdown, I stayed here. 'Mitch' (Mitchell) said 'go home and worry about the borders later on, we'll see you after Christmas. Do all your training, which he knew I would, back home. I trained with Fionn O'Hara the whole time. Spent three months at home. Came back and hit the ground running in January," he said. 

"The benefit of staying home was good, but then in the back of my mind I was worried about missing out on a new coach, new ideas and being out of contract. I just had to have that belief in myself. I knew when I got back that I was good to go."

>> TOO FRUITFUL Tuohy backs Irish talent

Nash has been thrown around as much as any Hawk this year. He has spent most of his time in the midfield, with cameos on a wing, across half-forward and even in the ruck when Ned Reeves, Max Lynch and Ben McEvoy were all unavailable. But unlike other years, the County Meath product has played all but one game, reaching 15 games for the first time in a season last weekend. 

"It started middle of last year when I was playing half-forward and it wasn't really working. I was playing really well at VFL level. Came up for a game and played as a key forward and it's just not me. I can't do that. Went back to VFL and 'Mitch' was there with Andy Collins and they thought it was worth trying me in the midfield to use my attributes: big, strong, fast," he said.

"I went in there and did well and get brought back up and played half forward again. The whole Clarko and Mitch situation was happening in the background and that's when I got more of an opportunity in the midfield. Played the last six games of the year predominantly midfield. I think Mitch just had a lot more belief in me as a player and what I could potentially become."

Geelong's Zach Tuohy celebrates a win over Western Bulldogs in R14, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

If Nash plays the remaining six games of 2022, he will become just the ninth Irishman to reach 50 games. Despite all that have tried, that milestone is more significant than people realise. Only five have reached triple figures – Stynes (264 games), Tuohy (242), Tadgh Kennelly (197), Pearce Hanley (161) and Sean Wight (150) – and only Kennelly has a premiership medallion. 

Nash has always been in this for the long haul. He doesn't want to go out on his own terms. He wants to play until Hawthorn no longer has a spot for him on the list. But after making significant inroads this winter, Nash is now eyeing other milestones further down the road. 

"I definitely want to stay here for as long as I can. This year has really given me the belief I can be a good player for this football club. I can see how much progress I've made in the last year and how much more I can make. I certainly think I can be here with this younger group coming through for another few years after this contract," he said.

"Halfway through last year it definitely changed. Playing 15 games on the weekend is the best I've done in a season. That's a little milestone. Playing 50 games would be great later this year. But certainly Pearce Hanley, Zach Tuohy, Tadgh Kennelly all give you something to aspire to. Games would certainly be second to matching Tadgh and being a premiership player."

Tadhg Kennelly doing an Irish jig after receiving his premiership medal in 2005. Picture: AFL Photos

While the rise of Nash in 2022 and the longevity of Tuohy have been big ticks for the Irish experiment, the loss of a handful of Irishmen during the pandemic has been a blow. Conor McKenna went home after emerging as a star at Essendon. Mark Keane pulled the pin due to homesickness in January. Conor Glass, Nash's close friend and former Hawthorn teammate, chose to head home and has become a GAA superstar. And Oisin Mullin never made it to Geelong. 

But despite a shift in the landscape in the wake of COVID-19 reducing the size of football departments and the closure of international borders, Nash believes more of his compatriots will come out in future. We just have to be patient. 

"I think there has certainly been a cool-off and it will certainly last for another little bit. I think clubs are being a little bit reluctant with a lack of resources. When I first came here there was a lot more resources compared to today. I think there will be a cool off for another year or two, but I still think there is a lot that could come. If you're going to do it as a club, you've got to put the time and effort in and do it right," he said.

Nash has done it right. From living around the corner from Hawthorn's spiritual home, Glenferrie Oval, to studying the minutiae of this famous football club's history. One day he will return to Ireland and settle down in Navan, play Gaelic football with his younger brother.

But that day can wait. He is only really just getting started.