“Yerra, something like that,” replies Gemma O’Connor, gingerly at that, when asked if tomorrow does in fact represent her 12th All-Ireland senior final appearance.
You’re keeping count?
“Yerra, not particularly.” There it is again, that trademark modesty that has defined a glorious era for Cork camogie and ladies football. Good thing then we did a brief scroll through the Camogie Association’s roll of honour before heading out to the Rochestown Park Hotel for last week’s press evening.
The 31-year old St Finbarr’s centre-back is chasing an eighth Celtic Cross tomorrow, having started and finished the previous seven final wins. And while she may be somewhat short of the 16 All-Ireland medals already accumulated by dual stars Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery, she’s at the top of the list when the latter pair’s quarry of ladies football medals are taken out of the equation.
Where the small ball is concerned in Cork, there is no one presently to rival her.
Goalkeeper Aoife Murray is also in possession of seven All-Ireland medals but was an unused sub for the 2002 win over Tipperary – a 17-year old Gemma O’Connor lining out beside namesakes Mary and Paula in the Cork half-back line during that 4-9 to 1-9 win.
There have also been nine All Star trinkets collected along the way, an unmatched haul in the game. So, why return for 2016? Few would have asked questions had she signed off after last year’s final win given how difficult a season 2015 had been for her, and her family.
“It was the most emotional final, from a personal point of view, I ever had to play in,” she said after the 1-13 to 0-9 triumph over Galway this time 12 months ago. “Number one for Cork and, ultimately, for my mother. Only for her, I wouldn’t be playing here today and she’s really ill at the moment. She is just an amazing woman. She’s fighting so hard at the moment.” Geraldine O’Connor lost her battle with cancer a week and a half later.
“I certainly did think about finishing,” Gemma admits.
“After losing my mother last year, it was hard to come back. It was quite a tough winter. Family was my main priority.I would have consulted my dad, Donal, and my brother, Glenn, when it came to making a decision. My go to person at the moment would be Glenn. He is playing senior hurling with the Barr’s and we knock a lot of stuff off each other. I talk about his games, he talks about my games. We are very critical of each other. Sometimes there is war in the house over it. But we appreciate we have each other and can go to one another for advice.”
What then was the grain of rice that tipped the balance in her returning for a 15th season? “You do it because you love it. You do it because it makes so many people happy, your family and your club.
“I think I’ll know myself when it is time to go. I still think I have something to give. As long as I feel like that, I’ll continue to play. We all have our own personal ambitions. I know getting to an All-Ireland final isn’t going to come around too often. Any opportunity that is there, I am certainly going to take it.”
Not long after committing to Paudie Murray’s set-up, camogie was forced to take somewhat of a backseat as the Army Corporal enlisted for a two-month course at the Curragh in Kildare, running right through May and June, to begin the process of becoming a sergeant.
Weekday training sessions had to be sacrificed as her presence was required at the Curragh from Monday morning through Friday evening. There were written exams, physical exams and week-long drills on the Glen of Imaal or the Galtee Mountains where sleep was at a premium.
“Those two months were the first part of the course and provided I complete the second part of the course next February, I’ll be eligible for promotion. During the tactical phase of the course, we had to present ourselves at the stores at 6am on Monday and you didn’t get back to base in the Curragh until 4pm on Friday. During that week, you might have four hours sleep.
“We were put into a lot of testing appointments to see have you the potential to be a leader, a sergeant. You are tested on your decision making in those situations, your robustness, and your physical fitness. It is fairly intense. There could be different scenarios thrown at you such as what do you do in the event of a casualty. A lot of the time too you are carrying weight on your back. For food, we are given ration packs. You’d be so hungry you’d eat anything.
“The hardest part is not being able to make training. I try to create a positive outlook on it and say to myself, ‘you’ll have a mental toughness from what you’re doing here and you can bring that onto the camogie field’.” Not that anyone has ever had reason to question Gemma O’Connor’s toughness, be it mental, physical or otherwise.
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