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Always about the team, never about her: Gaelic games' most successful warrior

In the wake of her 18th All-Ireland title win, Rena Buckley sat down with The42 to talk about her remarkable career to date.

BEFORE THE LIST of nominees for the 2017 camogie All-Star awards was announced this week, there was one certainty.

That Rena Buckley’s name would be there.

inpho_01269883 Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Exactly four weeks ago to the day, she climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand and lifted the O’Duffy Cup — the All-Ireland senior camogie title — on behalf of her Cork side.

A one-point win over reigning champions Kilkenny saw her collect her 18th All-Ireland medal, and become the most decorated player in Gaelic games history, male or female.

The renowned dual star added a seventh camogie Celtic Cross to her 11 Gaelic football medals, and became the first player ever to captain her native county to All-Ireland titles in both codes.

All in all, not a bad day’s work.

It’s all about the team

Upon meeting Buckley, the first thing that strikes you is her glowing personality. Smiling, bubbly, full of chat.

She’s happy to talk about anything. But she’s most content when she’s talking sport.

Ask her about her All-Ireland final a month ago, and she’ll give you the full run down.

She’ll tell you about how she feels Cork brought an intensity at the beginning of the game that Kilkenny couldn’t match. She’ll tell you about how the Cats sprung to life and were excellent in the second half, and how she feared for what would come next.

“I was kind of thinking ‘Jesus, this could be it,’” she tells The42, after pointing out that it was her marker Miriam Walsh, that put Kilkenny one point up.

“Had we lost the game, I still would have been very proud of how we battled. When we were behind, you’d nearly take the draw.”

She’ll bring you right back to the action, to those last few minutes in Croke Park and how the decider was completely in the melting pot. But then she’ll tell you about that remarkable Gemma O’Connor equaliser, and that last gasp Julia White winner.

She’ll tell it as it was though, about how the Rebels got two ‘half chances’. Half chances which they absolutely nailed against the odds how and ever.

Rena Buckley lifts the O'Duffy cup Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Both of them were only half chances and another day they could have went wide or short or whatever. But thankfully they both went over. We were very lucky at the end to get the win.

“I do think things went right for us on the day and if it had gone to a replay, things mightn’t have gone so well for us. We did get the rub of the green, and that happens sometimes in finals.

“Sometimes it goes for you, sometimes it doesn’t and it certainly went for us. We’re very pleased with it. We were absolutely thrilled.”

Her selflessness shines through in rays. It’s never about her, always about the team.

She smiles from ear to ear when she speaks about O’Connor, and how the stalwart defender’s inclusion in the starting line up even came as a surprise to herself.

“And Jesus what a way to finish the hour! She’s a great bit of stuff,” she grins.

And the same applies for White. She’s another great bit of stuff.

“I don’t how she got the shot away. Even the distance, she was under so much pressure, and then to direct it over as well. It was really phenomenal. That was her only possession of the game. It’s a huge credit to Julia.

“She has had little game time, and to have little game time and only get one opportunity, and to nail it like she did — Jesus, it was fantastic!”

It’s clear as day that Buckley would rather speak about others than herself, she’ll do her utmost to deflect the limelight off her remarkable individual achievements.

But five minutes or so into the conversation, it has to be said.

“You’re not a big fan of the whole hype, Rena, but it was such an honour to lift your 18th All-Ireland title…..”

“Oh, a huge honour,” she smiles. “And it was a huge honour to captain the team as well.”

As aforementioned, it’s always about the team.

The Cork team celebrate winning Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I suppose you have to win the club championship and then you have to be nominated from your club, and then you have to get to the final and win. There’s a lot of things that have to fall into place.

“I was hugely honoured to captain the team. It’s been a great team effort all year. It’s a credit to the team as such.”

She mentioned the club. She plies her trade with Iniscarra, and their county senior camogie title win last October resulted in the 30-year-old being nominated as Cork captain.

It also proved a key factor in Buckley’s dual decision this year, as she focused solely on the small ball. The footballers’ bid for their 12th All-Ireland title in 13 years came crashing down at the semi-final stage as Mayo knocked them out of the running.

Of the 11 titles they’ve won — all since 2005 — Buckley has been there for every single one.

She realises that she’s been part of exceptional groups with both football and camogie, club and county, and without that, she might not be the most decorated player in Gaelic games history today. It’s always about the team.

“I’ve been really, lucky,” she continues. “I’ve been playing on really good teams, clubs have been a huge help in terms of propelling you onto Cork teams.

“I’ve been very lucky in terms of injuries. I’ve gotten great support at home. I’ve been really, really lucky. I understand that I could have been born at a different time, or got bad injuries, or just that you wouldn’t have had such a good gang around.

“I appreciate all of that as well. It’s brilliant.”

Dual way of life

Buckley doesn’t come from a hugely die-hard GAA family. They would have always followed it, but it wasn’t until her older brother started playing that it became such a big thing.

“He would have lived for it when he was younger. He was the one who really introduced it in our house. We used to play an awful lot at home with each other.

Rena Buckley Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“From that, it just grew and grew. Mam and Dad really got on board with it. They’ve traveled the country following, and the county as well, they go to all the games. They’ve really supported us in all we’ve done.

“Only for that, there’s no way you’d be able to be as successful and as happy playing as we have been.”

She doesn’t quite remember which of the two codes came first for herself: “Erra, we used to always be playing both really.”

The parish and school she grew up in were more hurling and camogie orientated. Ladies football was very new, and she would have went to Donoughmore to play.

The obvious thing to do now, she laughs, but back then it was quite rare. From there, things just progressed year on year, until playing dual just became a way of life.

Iniscarra for club camogie, Donoughmore for club football and Cork for both codes.

Until this year.

She was handed the county camogie captaincy, and that was a huge deciding factor regarding her plans for 2017. Club football was also put on hold this year, Donoughmore didn’t field a team.

“I actually haven’t kicked a ball since last September,” she says. It’s fairly obvious that she misses it, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Buckley, along with her partner in crime Briege Corkery, have been caught up in many a dual dilemma through the years. On several occasions, two important matches have been scheduled on the same day.

And it happened again this year, with the Libby Coppinger saga.

As someone who’s been through it, she understands the various different points of view. Televising matches is important in promoting the games and fixtures are difficult to organise, but player welfare is a huge issue.

Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It was a huge pity it wasn’t planned in advance, the clash was a very realistic potential earlier on in the year and should have been avoided really. It was disappointing that things couldn’t have been moved around.

“This is a debate we’ve had at home for a long time. Look, you’d hope that it wouldn’t happen again. It’s certainly something that Gaelic games, be it GAA, camogie, ladies football, have to look at. There probably have to be changes, I think, across the board, to be honest. Hopefully going forward that can happen.”

The nine-time All-Star probably feels like a broken record discussing the struggles involved with playing dual at this stage, and how it gets harder as you get older.

And of course, the team gets more of a mention than the individual.

“You’re trying to commit to two teams and you’re trying to play at a high level. It’s disappointing for every other member of the team if you’re going to show up tired or run down. That’s much more likely if you’re a bit older.

“Just in terms of training during the year, to train Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, probably isn’t as easy as it used to be.”

Missing football

Club camogie is still in full flight with Iniscarra. They beat Cloughduv last weekend to book their county quarter-final with Douglas next Saturday.

They were training the morning of the Ladies football All-Ireland final, so Buckley didn’t get up the road to Croke Park to watch Dublin lift the Brendan Martin Cup after three years of hurt at the hands of her Cork side.

She watched it at home though, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

inpho_01269903 Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I suppose, we were looking at the game and thinking ‘Jesus, it’d be great to be there and it’d be great if there was a Cork team there’. But look, we had our chance the same as everyone else.

“I suppose it’s nice to see it going around in another sense, you know. If you’re beaten fair and square you were beaten. So, well done to Dublin. They were excellent on the day.

“It was amazing to see such huge numbers at the game too. There was great coverage. I think female sport certainly is going from strength to strength. Long may that continue.

“There’s definitely a great upward trend in terms of participation as well as coverage, and as well as attendance at games. Participation is obviously a huge part of it as well. If that keeps increasing, it’s definitely better for everybody.”

Earlier in the Cork footballers’ campaign with their semi-final clash with Mayo on the horizon, she shared with The42 that she’d love to be part of that occasion. The build-up, the fight for positions, the sixty minutes of hard-hitting football.

There is that void there, and she’ll openly admit that she misses it a fierce amount. But she’s been happy with her decision to concentrate on one code this year.

2018 

2017 has been another memorable year. Buckley speaks glowingly of the celebrations, the support, the turnouts around the county, the well wishes.

We sit with the O’Duffy Cup glimmering on the table in front of us, as she waits patiently for a photocall with a young fan. She’s told that 5-year-old Mia has just started camogie and can’t wait to meet her and it brings that huge smile to her face.

“It’s going around,” she laughs, looking at the cup. “It’s fairly busy. It’s great. It brings great joy to people in fairness, and people be delighted to see it. It’s lovely to see.”

The obvious way to end an interview like this is to ask what’s next, but that came much earlier in the conversation.

Anna Farrell and Rena Buckley Source: James Crombie/INPHO

To be blunt, she’s unsure. Club duty is still in full swing, so no decisions have been made yet.

“I suppose I’ll have a think about it when we’re finished up with the club and all of that,” she concludes. “We’ll see what we’ll do after that.

“I do miss the football, I certainly do. I would say I would find it hard to go back playing dual now next year. I’m getting a bit older as well, it’s certainly more difficult.”

One thing she’s certain of though is how much she’s reveled her career to date.

“I’ve really enjoyed all my time I put into the GAA. And I’ve gotten an awful lot out of it as well. I’ve had a fantastic time and I love playing.

“I know some people, they live for the games. I love the games, but I really enjoy the training as well. I find that very fulfilling.”

She may have gotten an awful lot out of her career, but we’ve gotten even more out of watching her prosper. And whatever the decision may be come next year, we look forward to what she’ll bring to the table in either code. Once again.

Rena Buckley launched the #AllIrelandSmiles campaign by Sensodyne and Corsodyl. Sensodyne and Corsodyl have teamed up to find out which county is the smiliest county in Ireland and offer one lucky participant a chance to win €5,000.

To enter, participants have to upload a selfie showing off their smile to social media using #AllIrelandSmiles and tell us what they love about their county and why.

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