Ben has been going now for years expending a phenomenal amount of energy every time he takes to the field, be it for club or county, match or training. There has been an All-Ireland title with Cork this year and last, county, Munster and an All-Ireland Club title in 2003/04, and a second county crown this year. Tomorrow he faces into a Munster final against Ballygunner of Waterford. But burnout? “Nah” he snorts, derisively; “I think a lot of those who talk about burnout are just getting lazy, don’t want to put in the work. Newtown are going as long as anyone else, and thankfully, we still seem to keep it going. Anyway, it’s games; there’s nothing worse than starting training in January, with your first championship match in May, that can turn fellas off. At least this way, you’re going from week to week, game to game, with championship matches coming regularly. I don’t agree with this burnout theory. It’s all upstairs. A fella should be able to keep himself motivated all year, then it doesn’t matter.”
It’s not as if Ben is a fresh-faced teenager, just breaking into the scene, all youthful vim and vigour. He’s 26 and established as one of the best-known hurlers in the country. And yet, the appetite remains, for the game, for the honours still to be won. A couple of weeks ago, along with team-mate Pat Mulcahy, he flew to Boston to play for Munster in the Martin Donnelly Interprovincial Championship; starred at midfield in a second half move. Munster won, they both flew out of Boston that evening, while the rest of the tour stayed around for a couple of days of R&R and were back training with Newtown within 36 hours.
Last weekend, he won an All-star award (his first, another indictment of the selection process); his reaction? “If I had a choice between winning this match on Sunday or the All-Star, I’d take a win against Ballygunner; the All-star would take second place.”
Appetite, driven by attitude, and the attitude of Ben O’Connor, of his brother Jerry (hurler-of-the-year) and Pat Mulcahy, is exemplary. You want role models, for yourself, for your kids? These are they.
“There’s all this talk about the three of us, that’s because we’d be the best known, a lot of the reporters wouldn’t know any of the other lads.
But it (Newtown’s success) isn’t just down to the three of us, it’s down to the whole parish, the whole team. We look on ourselves as just one of the boys, and that’s the attitude as well when we come back to the field.
“You find it out fairly lively anyway when someone belts into you! Names mean nothing to the lads, and that’s the way we look at it as well, we just get on with the job. When we’re not around, training with Cork, they’re back here doing the work, and it’s not easy for them, given that a lot of the time they don’t know when their next championship game is. This is a total panel effort. There are 27 on the panel at the moment, and every night in training, it’s almost a full turnout. Anyone that’s not there has to have a good excuse, anything less isn’t accepted, by anyone.
“Everyone abides by the same rules, no exceptions.”
I suppose it can be a little humbling anyway when you come back to your club, recognised as one of the fastest players on the inter-county scene, and you find yourself being left for dead.
“Yeah, there’s a bit of pace there alright. Cathal (Naughton) is the slowest fella we have (laughs), he has fierce pace, small Jerry (O’Mahony, first cousin) the same, John (another brother, with teenager Eamonn the fourth O’Connor on the panel) is fast. So we have pace everywhere I suppose. We were above at the field the other night, Cathal took off about three yards ahead of T (Alan T. O’Brien, midfielder), and from a standing start, T had him passed within 20 metres, ball taken off him, gone down the other way. T is probably the fastest we have; in fact, at times it’s depressing to be at training with these fellas shooting past you! But I suppose it’s a good complaint to have, and this year, we have a stronger panel than ever, a lot of fellas are unlucky not to be starting.”
So, it’s not a three-man band, but a 15-man team, this Newtown outfit, with further strength on the bench. Significantly however, the big three always play their part, always deliver, as they did in the come-from-behind win over Thurles Sarsfields in the semi-final. Attitude, again, the kind of attitude that says that, regardless of opposition, of circumstance, of the number of games already played, of the number of months on the go, there’s one more game to be won.
“We’re aware of how good Ballygunner are, played them two years ago up in Ardfinnan, they gave us a right tarring. We found them fierce physical on the day, very big and strong; they kept the ball in the air, and we just weren’t able for them. But that was only a challenge match; it will be different on Sunday, a bit of pressure there, the hurling will be different. The main thing is not to give away frees inside thirty yards, because more often than not Paul Flynn will go for goal.
“There are times when it has to be done, but nothing cheap. Ah, we’re not just looking to one fella, you have to be aware of them all. We’ll play away our own game, and if we can do that, as long as our game is working, I don’t think we’ll have to be too bothered about what anyone else is doing. Just stick to our own game, get it working; if it does, drive forward, everyone knows what the next fella is going to do, that’s the main thing for us. When we do get going, keep it going, don’t allow them back into it; kick on, keep going constantly.”
And that’s the mantra, for Ben and Newtown; head down, keep going, pedal to the metal while there’s still gas in the tank, because soon enough anyway, too soon for a lot of us, we all run out of road.