by Daragh Ó Conchúir
Gemma O’Connor is driven and that is good news for Cork.
The five-time All-Ireland medallist, who was named Young Camogie Player of the Year in 2002 and Camogie Player of the Year three years later, won the last of her record six All-Stars in 2009. But by her own admission, she has been part of a malaise that enveloped many of the squad in subsequent seasons.
Primarily, it was a loss of hunger, and that was characterised by a drop in standards and poor results. That knowledge is what drives O’Connor now and Cork are back in an All-Ireland final.
“I’ve always had the love for the game but the last two years were very disappointing” said the 27-year-old St Finbarr’s star this week.
“And I was very disappointed with the fact that there were a lot of people, including myself, that didn’t have that much motivation. Although we still wanted to go out and win there was something missing there.
“Sometimes you have to lose something to gain back what the whole idea of playing is. Not performing the last two years was a disappointment and a driving factor this year. We got things right from the start and it’s been a good year compared to the last two years.
“If the potential is there and the talent is there, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win. It’s like the Kilkenny hurlers when they lost the year before last. It was a kick up the backside for them and they went out and won the following year.
“You have to have that drive and motivation. If you get that right from the start, you’re going to have a very good chance of getting to an All-Ireland final.”
She is driven too by the uncertainty about her future in the Cork jersey after Sunday. Although she has given a decade to the seniors since her All-Ireland winning debut season in 2002, she is still young enough to play for many more years.
As a Corporal in the Defence Forces though, there is a possibility of O’Connor embarking on an overseas Tour of Duty next April. The six-month mission would rule her out of championship action.
“I’ve been overseas to Liberia and Chad but they’ve been both winter trips so I’ve been home for the summer. Next April I was hoping to go overseas but our home unit in Cork has been disbanded due to the reorg of the Defence Forces.
“Obviously the economic climate is after determining that and the Defence Forces is after being downsized. So our unit in Collins Barracks is after being disbanded and because of that, I’m not sure where I’ll end up. It could be Limerick, Kilkenny or Cork.”
O’Connor will find out in the next couple of weeks but the uncertainty means that right now, she doesn’t know if she’ll be in Ireland next summer.
Those previous Tours left a huge impression on O’Connor, particularly her first one to Liberia in 2005, when she was a raw 20-year-old. Liberia was emerging from a bloody civil war that resulted in the deaths of 150,000 people.
She was part of an infantry battalion that guarded installations, searched for weapons, kept roads open and helped restore peace in a timely fashion. They also helped with the humanitarian projects and O’Connor speaks of their own Padre having a big role in local orphanages.
“I went over quite young and it was an eye-opener as regards the state of the country, a country that had so much to offer as regards the natural resources, but everything had been exploited by their own; a country that could have so much going for them.
“The poverty over there was frightening. Our job was to make a friendly presence felt. You get to see and meet these people in villages and the city of Monrovia. It was quite a new experience and an opportunity no other job would give me.
“You learn certain things about yourself. You live with a certain group of people for six months. It’s not like you have the opportunity to go away, or go travelling or go home if you want. It’s kind of a life-changing experience.”
O’Connor enjoyed making a difference to these communities, which is why she is anxious to do it again.
But Sunday comes first and she has been making a difference to Cork for many years, showing a leadership that probably comes naturally, but has been fostered by a career in the Defence Forces.
“It’s because I had an interest in sport and an active lifestyle; that’s what attracted me to the Army. And likewise, the Army is involved so much in sport so they go hand-in-hand. You gain certain attributes from the Defence Forces that could maybe help me on the pitch.”
She is not inclined to panic during games and her physical attributes are second-to-none. Early basic Army training tests how a person reacts under pressure and whether he/she can deal with adversity. That, allied with her experience, means that O’Connor is relaxed in the build-up to Sunday’s All-Ireland final.
“A few years ago I would probably have been a lot more excited and nervous. In the last few years I learned that while I enjoy the lead-up, I try not to get carried away with it. I still have to do my job. I still have to do the normal things in life. It’s important to stay as calm and relaxed as possible before the game.
“In the Army, we’re trained to be leaders every day and I hope I can give that contribution to the girls and management and hopefully that will come into play on Sunday.”
She has certainly been a powerful figure at centre-back for Cork, adding a resolution to their defence, while also proving the starting point for many of the side’s attacks.
Wexford will be the sternest test of their bid to return to top of the tree however. While Cork drifted, JJ Doyle’s crew have dominated and are chasing a three-in-a-row.
The Leesiders did lay down a marker by stopping Wexford’s bid for four league titles in a row in the decider though. The Yellowbellies responded by inflicting a five-point defeat on their rivals in the group series of the championship. It is an intriguing match-up.
“Wexford have been the up-and-coming team since 2007 and from then on I knew this was the new team. Being lucky enough to be involved with a team that had success, no matter how good you are, all things come to an end and I knew that was going to stop. That happened in the last two years. Wexford have proved their worth since 2007.
“The National League final was our objective, to get there in the first place. Winning it would be a bonus but getting there was the main thing because in the last two years things have been disappointing.
“It did turn out to be a really important win for us starting the championship, especially as it was over Wexford. We all try to get one up on each other but then again they beat us in the championship this year so it really does come down to the performance on the day and whoever wins on Sunday, I think it might come down to a puck of the ball.”
By this stage, there is no doubting that O’Connor is ravenously hungry for this. So too, she promises, are Joanne O’Callaghan and Jenny O’Leary, team-mates when Fiona O’Driscoll’s hat-trick of goals saw off Tipperary in the 2002 final.
Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley, Orla Cotter, Jenny Duffy and Aoife Murray are others with a hatful of medals, while the likes of Katie Buckley and Joanne Casey are pursuing their first. It makes no difference. This is about Sunday and nothing else.
“People might say ‘sure how many All-Irelands do you have?’ But the only thing I can think of, and the rest of the girls can think of, is the disappointment of last year and the year before and how heartbreaking it was. Not because we were beaten but because of the lack of effort and attitude, and things that were wrong.
“All the achievements go out the window because if you’re playing Sunday, you’re starting from scratch again. If we win on Sunday, for me that’s been there since 2002, it will mean as much as the person that will win their first All-Ireland.
“It felt so great when the whistle blew after the semi-final to get back to that place. We really genuinely missed being there.
“Like I said, sometimes you just have to lose to get that want back and we certainly have it. Whether we’ll get the result on Sunday will be a question but we’ll certainly give it a fair go anyway.”
You can take it as read.