O'Connor finishes curtailed campaign at top of the AIL class

O'Connor finishes curtailed campaign at top of the AIL class
16 December 2019; Hannah O'Connor poses for a portrait following a Leinster Rugby Women's press conference at Leinster Rugby Headquarters in UCD, Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

This was supposed to be a time to wind down. Not just for Hannah O'Connor, who should only this month be looking back on a full season spent juggling commitments with Blackrock, Leinster and Ireland, but for her pupils at Scoil Mhuire NS in Lucan for whom the third term is the point when summer begins to beckon.

The end-of-year musical had already been confirmed and the roles for 'The Sound of Music' decided. That's all gone now, although efforts will be made to hold a graduation ceremony when circumstances allow and the usual commemorative hoodies will be printed.

“Myself and my two sixth class colleagues in the school are literally the grinches now giving them work to do when normally we would be doing the fun stuff,” O'Connor joked this week from Loughrea in Galway where she is spending the lockdown with her family.

For teachers and pupils everything has been turned on its head.

O'Connor was accustomed to days and weeks that fit together like neighbouring pieces of a jigsaw. Up just after 6am, fit in some gym work, do a day's work and then make for Stradbrook or wherever training might be on the day in question. Home some time after ten.

Her diary now is more ad hoc but still busy: help out in the family store across the week and educate her students via the now ubiquitous online resources. Zoom and Adobe Spark are just two of the tools she leans on in adapting to this 'new normal'.

“It's not been too bad. We're lucky that we have very good parents at our school that are working with you and I would be lucky enough having sixth class as they are more independent than the younger ones and they can do a lot of the stuff themselves.

“We set the work and they can tip away at it themselves. It's weird how many different methods there are for communicating with them. We're doing a lot with emails and online forums and blogs so that you're almost creating a kind of little website page for them.”

What's clear, and not just in Scoil Mhuire, is that the kids have been incredible in all this strangeness. The youngest generation has adapted to a scenario that none could have envisaged and yet the distance required of them from their teachers, their friends and their classrooms can't be overlooked.

O'Connor, for instance, has found that her charges respond particularly well to lessons when they can see their teacher's face or hear her voice but then we've all had to adjust to the extra time spent in the virtual online world.

Last Friday evening being an example.

The Energia All Ireland League annual awards should have been a lavish affair. Plush city centre hotel. Everybody dressed to the nines. Maybe the opportunity to hit the town afterwards now that the domestic season was done.

Instead, everyone logged on from the comfort/confinement of their own homes as the awards were announced. Mario Rosenstock impersonated Michael D and ROG while luminaries such as Andy Farrell, Keith Earls and Adam Griggs logged on to say hello.

A strange sort of night, then, but a memorable one for O'Connor who watched it in the same sort of sports gear that the entire country has been wearing for months and found herself honoured with the award for Women's AIL player of the year.

“I didn't even know I was nominated until one of the girls sent me a screenshot of it. I knew they were coming up. I was like, 'yes, sweet, something rugby related that is up to date and I can watch'. The Blackrock girls did a Zoom night of it.

“We were up for try of the year as well. That was a bit of fun but I didn't know until it was literally announced. No more than anybody else, you have to adapt and come up with something different for the new ways. Fair play to them for the awards.”

O'Connor's came on the back of a highly successful year at club, provincial and international levels and only six years after taking up the game at CYM Terenure having spent her time before that commuting between football, soccer, camogie and golf.

Blackrock made the league playoffs last season, Leinster claimed another interpro title - and faced Harlequins at Twickenham - while her Ireland debut was ticked off last November when replacing club and provincial teammate Judy Bobbett off the bench against Wales at the UCD Bowl.

“Your desire just goes through the roof after that little taste,” she explained. “You will do whatever it takes to stay at that level. The Six Nations showed some improvements for us and we would love to have finished it off although for me it didn't go exactly the way I wanted it to.

“I still learned a lot from it and you come out of it a better player, even without getting the caps. Our back row is incredibly competitive so I know what I am up against there. That's what you want, no matter what the level is.”

A No.8 who can play second row, O'Connor's previous sporting experiences fed into her initial forays in rugby where she started off as an out-half before migrating to 12 on joining Blackrock and then to the back row. She still kicks for the club and, on plenty of occasions, Leinster.

“If you're kicking for the lineout and then you are the lineout caller it can be a bit hectic but I really enjoy it. It's my favourite part of the game, probably. The way I look at it is there is no pressure because no-one expects the No.8 to be able to kick it.”

That may change now, or whenever rugby and school are no longer out.

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