Ursula Jacob is one of the all-time greats of camogie, a four-time All-Ireland winner with Wexford and in pursuit of a fourth AIB All-Ireland senior club title with Oulart-The Ballagh as they clash with Galway side Sarsfields at Croke Park today (4pm – Live RTÉ 2).
That knowledge and experience, allied with an ability to articulate, has made her a fulcrum of RTÉ’s team of Gaelic games pundits.
She knows what it is to compete in the white heat of battle with it all on the line, her playing career coming after being reared around genderless hurling, as the daughter of Wexford great Mick Jacob, and sister of Helena, Rory and Michael, Wexford players all.
“I’m so used to talking about GAA whether it’s camogie or hurling when I was at home, it was all the one. My mom and dad spoke to me and my sister, the exact same as they spoke to my two brothers about hurling or camogie. It was never really viewed much different. When I was asked by RTÉ to first go on the camogie panel when I’d retired sure I jumped at the chance. Then the opportunity came about working on the hurling side of things.
“At the start, you’re kind of saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve watched The Sunday Game all my life, and I’m now sitting alongside an Anthony Daly or Donal Óg Cusack or Jackie Tyrrell, and these are players that I’ve admired and respected. And I suppose sometimes you’d have felt intimidated going into an environment. Once you get into the room and you’re chatting with them, you forget you’re on the telly with these heroes. You’re just having a chat with someone in your local pitch or on the street or whatever. They’re all very embracing towards me, they respect my opinion.
“I’m there to do a job. I think Donal Óg Cusack can talk about camogie as much as I can talk about hurling. I think we need to get over the kind of gender thing. Obviously, you’ll always have people who won’t be happy about it but as long as I feel that I’m doing a good job, I just get on with.”
A thick skin is necessary. Check. So is a fairly balanced approach to peaks and troughs. Check. Oh, and being able to juggle a multitude of balls. Check. She has combined the playing and punditry with her job as a staff officer with Tusla. Throwing in a wedding between All-Irelands might have broken a lesser woman but then Stacey Kehoe was married the day before the December decider against Sarsfields and was player of the match. So you couldn’t complain, not that that it is in her nature.
“Every week I’m just running around left, right, centre… I’m thankful I’m pretty good at the whole multitasking and at managing a workload. The last five, six months have been just manic but it’s been really positive and enjoyable too. I’ve probably never enjoyed my camogie as much as the last couple of years, and that’s a probably a strange thing to say considering it was such a disruptive couple of years in one way, but I don’t know, I think playing camogie, it gave all of us, including myself, a distraction.
“I don’t think we need to harp on about age and all of that, but I just think the older you do get, you only have one guarantee: that you’re paying a final on Sunday. You can’t look past that because who knows what’s going to happen or who knows what’s next? So, you’re kind of fully embracing and enjoying that at the moment.”
What gave Jacob the credibility to be asked to analyse camogie first and then hurling, was that she was different gravy between the white lines. Pure class. She was the freetaker who could be relied upon to remain cool under the most suffocating of pressure. But she was dynamite from play too. Still is, as testified by her rocket to the top corner for the first-half goal in the semi-final defeat of Scariff Ogonnelloe.
And when big-time plays were needed, she delivered. In the 2011 All-Ireland final, when she was captain, Jacob rifled 1-2 in the final ten minutes to secure victory for Wexford when they had been treading water against Galway. The goal was sensational, an aerial catch, a couple of steps to make space and a rifled shot to the net.
Who will ever forget the reaction of co-commentator Cyril Farrell 12 months later after her incredible goal eight minutes from the end of normal time, which cemented the three-in-a-row?
“That’s un-REAL,” bellowed the Galway man and he was spot on. It was one of the great goals scored at Croke Park, as Jacob propelled the sliotar off the sod into opposite corner, beyond Cork legend Aoife Murray, from just to the right of the square while running away from goal.
Jacob followed up with two quick points – one from tight to the sideline – and suddenly a two-point game was dead and buried. She finished the day as player of the match, with 2-7 of the Yellowbellies’ 3-13.
Think Carey, think Cantona, think Jordan. Think Jacob.
“I’ve become a little bit more reflective about those kinds of finals. Even more so since I retired with Wexford. At the time you’re not really thinking about too much, you’re just so happy and overjoyed that you won, but in the last couple years throughout the lockdowns, I found myself, with my dad and my mom, watching some of the All-Ireland finals. I actually hadn’t really watched some of those All-Irelands with Wexford.
“I look back on my time and those experiences in Croke Park so fondly because we had a special group of girls. And obviously then I’ve been lucky enough to achieve it with the club as well. Some of my best friends are from camogie and I’ve kind of warriored along with the likes of Mary and Úna (Leacy), Karen Atkinson and Ciara Storey, and Shelly and Stacey Kehoe, and you’re just in each other’s pockets.
“But you do look back more now and definitely the goal (in 2012) is a standout. I was crediting Croke Park in interviews after for the pristine condition of the pitch. I struck it better than I could ever strike it. It was a great goal and it helped us win the game so I’ll always look back on it fondly.”
But they are still looking forward. They were riled up by the fact that their age profile had been highlighted prior to the last final and it was clearly a motivating factor judging from their own post-match reaction. Nobody is saying they might be too old now.
Yet Jacob knows that it is more than she could ever have dreamt of, to be striding out onto Croke Park one more time, for the club, with an All-Ireland on the line.
“It’s ten years since we’ve been in our first final where we played Drom & Inch. If someone had said to me back in 2012 that we’d be back again in a final and the core of the team’s still there ten years later, I would’ve been saying there’s no way I’d be there still at 36 years of age back in Croke Park.
“It’s fantastic. And it’s a credit to a lot of us who stuck at it because for some, it could have been just easier to kind of step away. We had won a lot and achieved a lot, but I suppose you kind of have that stubbornness in you as well, that you have a point to prove.
“It’s brilliant to be back in a final but it’s going to be an absolute monstrosity of a battle, one of the toughest games I’ll probably ever play. Sarsfields are going be gunning for us and we’re looking to get one over on them again. I think it’ll be a cracking game, but nothing’s going to be won easily on Sunday.”
The knowledge is soothing. Calming. She doesn’t fear the tumult and mayhem that lies ahead. The greats never do.
“We’re all looking forward to it. You have to enjoy it. Nerves are good. They show that you care but it’s just about making sure they don’t overcome you.”
“There is a real sense of community in Oulart and The Ballagh and all of Wexford. And I’m thrilled especially to see the older people in the community getting so much from it and going to matches and talking about the matches. Maybe it’s coming out of Covid and all that but I think that is what makes the club championship that bit more special and I take so much pride in the red and black of Oulart-The Ballagh being represented in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
“If you can’t enjoy that and be looking forward to being a part of that, I don’t know what to say.”
Rendering Ursula Jacob speechless? Almost as rare as her being held scoreless.
Once more unto the breach, with her friends.