The announcement last night that Ben O’Connor has retired from inter-county fare marks the end of an era for Cork hurling, the time of the twins.
For the past 12 years Ben and his brother Jerry were members of the Cork senior hurling panel and in that time became central to a new and contentious style of play.
With their club, Newtownshandrum, under the guidance of their father Bernie, ‘the twins’ (as they came to be universally known) were lynchpins of a possession game which depended hugely on accuracy of passing and unremitting support play.
In 1996, still just 16, Ben and Jerry inspired Newtownshandrum from the doldrums to an intermediate title. Four years later came the major breakthrough, Newtown’s first senior title, and four years later even more progress, and the pinnacle this time — an All-Ireland club crown.
For such a small club it was a meteoric rise.
By then, the twins had become the talk of hurling, as had the revolutionary Newtown style. By then also that style had been adopted, and adapted by new Cork manager Donal O’Grady and that year, 2004, with Ben as captain and Jerry as the midfield general, Cork won the first of back-to-back All-Ireland titles.
Should have been more, many would argue (including this observer), but the end of the 2006 season and the appointment of an entirely new management team saw the beginning of the end of that controversial new Cork style.
Consummate hurlers, both Ben and Jerry hurled on. But, as the system became more and more conventional, their influence was reduced. Late last year Jerry retired. Yesterday it was the turn of Ben.
In a fashion reflective of their personalities, both went quietly, no fanfare or big announcement. But oh, what a debt they are owed, not just by Cork hurling but by hurling generally. Everything that’s good about hurling they had it, in spades. Though light in stature, both were deceptively strong. They had that rare combination of burning speed and all-day stamina (Ben probably that little bit quicker over the short distance, but midfielder Jerry with the lungs of a long-distance runner). They had the skill to make the ball sing but, above all, they had hurling intelligence and were supremely creative.
Ben was the finisher, the inside-man, the killer. In the red jersey he became known over the last decade for his superb point-taking, the shot off the stick on the run from the right wing his trade-mark, but he also had a nose for goal.
He finishes his inter-county career with 51 championship appearances, scoring a total of 8-224, an average of almost exactly five points per game. He has three All-Ireland titles, two All Star awards, one National League and one Railway Cup. But mere statistics will never tell of the contribution of Ben O’Connor and his twin brother Jerry to hurling, nor of their impact. It’s no contradiction to say — together, they were one-of-a-kind.
In a statement on the Cork GAA website last night, current senior hurling manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who gave Ben his break back in 1999, paid this short tribute: “Ben has been an outstanding servant to Cork GAA, and while we are very disappointed to lose his services, we respect his decision and wish him well.”
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