Rena Buckley: "If it’s just my parents coming to watch it or 40,000 coming to watch it I still want to play as well as I can"

You may recognise the name but not the face while the scale of her achievements has probably been lost on you as well.

Although the whole country last winter — through the RTÉ Team of the Year award — finally realised the sustained excellence of Eamonn Ryan’s ladies footballers; while it can now tell the headband, scoring feats and even sexuality of their exceptional strike forward Valerie Mulcahy; even though Anna Geary’s retirement last week made the Six-One News, you’d need serious prompting to know that the pleasant but unassuming bespectacled physio that walks into the lobby of the Oriel House Hotel in Ballincollig is the most decorated player in women’s GAA history.

Her All-Ireland senior medal count is now 14: nine in football, five in camogie, just like her fellow dual player and friend, Briege Corkery. Only the late great Kathleen Mills who won 15 All-Irelands with Dublin camogie in the 1950s and 60s has more senior Celtic Crosses.

Rena Buckley: 'If it’s just my parents coming to watch it or 40,000 coming to watch it I still want to play as well as I can'

Then throw in the couple of All-Irelands she’s won with Donoughmore. And all her national league medals.

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Today, when Cork face Galway in Parnell Park, it will be their eight consecutive league final appearance, their 11th in 12 years. While Corkery went travelling in 2010, Buckley has been around for all of them, winning eight.

Last weekend she played in her sixth camogie league final. She lost that day but had previously won four.

Do the math. Today is her 34th national senior final with Cork. A win and it’ll be her 27th national title. Even though she’s just turned 28.

It doesn’t really bother her that she has such a low profile to go with such a high medal count.

You’ll get no sense of victimhood from her.

“People often ask me, does it annoy you that women don’t get the same coverage (as men)? Bla, de bla, de bla. I think when I was younger, it might have. But as you get older, you can’t let stuff like whether it’s going to be in the paper or on television bother you.

"If it’s just my parents coming to watch it or 40,000 coming to watch it, I still want to play as well as I can. All that other stuff is external. It’s up to administrators or whoever to promote it. My job as a player is to do my best for the group.”

If there’s anyone she feels is hard done by, it’s the club player. Such as her own teammates in Inniscarra who last year had to play a camogie county semi-final, replay and county final all in the space of seven days (“Look, we’d have been beaten anyway, Milford were much the better team but that [schedule] was crazy stuff”).

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Or all the male club players around the county that frequently visit the physiotherapy centres that she works out of in Ballincollig and Macroom.

The past fortnight has been probably the busiest time of year in her work, with over half her clients being young men getting themselves right for the first round of the local championships.

But when will they be out again? That’s the question, that’s the problem.

“I think there needs to be a separate inter-county season and club season. Club players now are really committed but I don’t think they’re being adequately respected. The GAA have massively glamourised the inter-county game and they’ve done a great job with that but I’d be worried long term about the grassroots.

“They’ve got to set it up that you know for sure when you’re playing matches. I personally would have it that you have your All-Ireland final at the end of July. Up to then you’re playing league games without your county players.

"Then you have your club championship season through August, September and October, with the format a bit like what you have with the Champions League.”

For Buckley herself, there’s never been a doubt when she’s out next: the following week invariably, it’s just a case of which code and which team.

From her studies and work in physiotherapy, she’s understood the importance of rest and recovery. But by her nature, she’s never shirked hard graft either.

For more than a decade, Juliet Murphy set the standard for ladies football, Cork football and Donoughmore football but early on she recognised she had a disciple in Buckley.

“When Rena first started training with Donoughmore, our trainer Mossie Barrett would have put a huge emphasis on fitness. Yet I remember before training you’d see her doing 16 laps of the field, then she’d do the physical with the team and then she’d cycle home to Inniscarra.

“Things are maybe more scientific now but she always had a high level of fitness and was always extremely dedicated.

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"She might have just come down from her studies in UCD but you’d never hear a word of complaint from her. You might not know even that she was training earlier on the day. She just gets on with it.

“I’ve never heard Rena give out to somebody or blame anyone. The rest of us have all lashed out at some stage or other in frustration. But not Rena. She channels that drive and will to win in other ways. When the going gets tough and the team is in trouble, she’ll do something unseen or unheralded to turn the game.”

A standout memory for Murphy is an All-Ireland club semi-final against Cora Staunton’s Carnacon. Often when Cork played Mayo, the versatile Buckley would be assigned to man mark the most famous player in the history of the women’s game. This day she was midfield with the club.

“Normally her tendency would be to be the more defensive midfielder tracking or sitting back,” says Murphy.

“That day she basically grabbed the team and the game by the neck and pulled us through. We won that game and it was almost entirely down to her. She was an inspiration.”

That versatility and temperament has been vital to Cork through the years; since Murphy’s retirement, Buckley has been playing mostly midfield, meaning she’s now played every spot from two to nine for both the county camogie and football teams.

It has also been tested. Last September when Cork fell 10 points down to Dublin with just 15 minutes to go, Eamonn Ryan put in the order that she and Angela Walsh were to switch positions. At that point, even Buckley had her doubts. About her new role. About Cork’s prospects.

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“When the second goal went,” says Buckley, “my mindset was ‘Oh for God’s sake if we’re beaten, don’t let it be a hammering. Let’s put some respectability on this at least.’ I didn’t want to be embarrassed. At that point if we had gone home without being hammered, it would have been a good day as well.

“When the switch was made, a part of me was petrified. I hadn’t played in the full-back line all season. I didn’t want to make a mistake because any slip would seal it for Dublin and disrupt any momentum we’d get. It’s a cagier mentality, playing in the full-back line. If you break even there and you and their forward both do nothing, you’re happy.”

By the game’s end, she’d never been happier. On the edge of the square, she’d survived and thrived. The first ball played in, a part of her feared Sinead Aherne would skin her for pace, but Buckley’s guile would shepherd her out of harm’s way.

The next play she came storming out with the ball, breaking a tackle of Dublin’s talisman player Lindsay Peat, winning a free, taking it quickly, maintaining the momentum. It would sweep Dublin away and Cork to immortality.

After that win, it finally seemed to register in the national consciousness just how special a group Eamonn Ryan coaches. Just how remarkable his midfield pairing from that day was though is still not fully appreciated.

Briege Corkery has now won 13 All Stars between football and camogie. Buckley has seven. At a time when in the men’s game the dual player seems to be beyond even a freak talent like Aidan Walsh, Buckley and Corkery drive on. How?

“I suppose we’ve known nothing else. I’d imagine if you didn’t start out playing the two at senior level and then tried to mix them, it would be much more difficult. It also helps that we’ve less media and public scrutiny. If we have a bad game, there’s not a word about it or our dual status. The men don’t have that leeway.”

She admits she has little time for anything outside of the games and work — her work partner, Brian O’Connell, is the physio to the team so wherever she looks, there’s no escaping work or GAA. When Eamonn Ryan tells them about the importance of “minding themselves”, Buckley takes that to mean signing up “to live like nuns” for most the year.

But she’d have it no other way. As they put it, they don’t make sacrifices, they make winning choices. Hanging out and winning together is the best social life she could imagine.

She does get the odd break. If there’s four collective training sessions per week between the two teams, she’d regularly take one off, possibly by being a physio at a game for one of the local GAA clubs or Dolphin rugby. Management understand.

They know she “minds herself”. And that when she’s there, she is there in both body and mind. When Kobe Bryant once said “It’s not about how much you practise; it’s about how much your mind is present when you practise,” it resonated with her.

That’s why she’s out to savour everything. When she started out with the Cork ladies footballers, she could never have envisaged this kind of success.

“I would have grown up always looking to the hurling. When you’d aspirations to play for Cork, it was with the camogie team.

“As a kid, I’d have got autographs from Linda Mellerick, Sandy Fitzgibbon, Denise Cronin, Fiona O’Driscoll.

“Every year in Inniscarra there’d have been a bus organised to go up for their All-Irelands. I was never brought to see a ladies football All-Ireland because Cork weren’t in them. Breaking onto the Cork camogie team was a lot harder because at the time it was a lot better.”

That would change. For all the camogie team’s success, it’s been more sporadic and less consistent than the footballers. Last year’s camogie win she attributes to “a consistency of effort throughout the whole season”. Has it always been there?

No. Is it suitably there this year? Not yet, though she thinks last week’s loss to Galway will provide the required wakeup call.

“Now it’s probably more difficult for a younger player coming into the football panel. They’re challenging people that they know for spots. When I came in I had to learn people’s names. I didn’t know who they were even though they were there for years.”

The newcomers have blended in well, she feels. But a recent 13-point loss to Dublin signalled to them that the transition is going to be a challenge. Dublin want their All-Ireland crown, so too this highly promising Galway team they square off against today.

For a while there it seemed like the class of 2005 would play and stay forever. Now the turnover is more constant and rapid. Even Ryan won’t manage forever. Even Buckley won’t play forever.

“We’re blessed to have Eamonn again this year. I don’t have 10 years of a career ahead of me. It’s coming to an end sooner rather than later so you want to get as much out of it as you can.

"I’d be very conscious of that the past couple of years. Last week, we [the camogie] played in Thurles. I might never play in Thurles ever again. It was class! It’s why I’m really excited about this [football] game. I might not play another league final ever again.”

So she’ll appreciate it while she can. While we might appreciate her while we can.

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