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Dublin: 18 °C Friday 20 July, 2018
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'I've gotten a good bit of attention, which wouldn't really be what I'd look for'

The most successful player in the history of Gaelic Games has a big decision to make for 2018.

Rena Buckley lifts the O'Duffy cup Rena Buckley became the first player to captain her county to All-Ireland success in both codes in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

RENA BUCKLEY DOESN’T even have time to close the door behind her when she’s greeted by one of the other customers as she enters Number 57 Cafe on Macroom’s Main Street.

“Morning, Rena. How are ya keeping?”

It’s Monday, exactly two weeks out from Christmas, and there’s a busy week ahead for Buckley. She’ll be in Dublin at the weekend, where she’ll take her place among the country’s elite athletes for the 2017 RTÉ Sports Awards.

For now, she’s merely one of the regulars grabbing a coffee to take the chill out of a winter morning before a hectic day at work. But Rena Buckley isn’t just another punter — although her effortless modesty and unassuming outlook on her unprecedented success can be quite effective in attempting to convince you otherwise.

In other words, Buckley is the polar opposite of the man she’s in the running to succeed as RTÉ Sports Person of the Year. She didn’t — at least as far as we’re aware — wear a Gucci mink coat or demand that Anna Farrell spit-shine the O’Duffy Cup at any press conferences before September’s All-Ireland senior camogie final.

While she’ll enjoy mingling with athletes from other codes on Saturday night, conversely the Cork camogie captain and 2017 player of the season could do without a weekend in Dublin at this time of year. Averaging eight clients a day at her physiotherapy clinic in Macroom, the trip to the capital will cost her a couple of days’ work.

Rena Buckley, Owen Elliott and Anna Farrell at the coin toss Buckley and Anna Farrell shake hands before the 2017 All-Ireland senior camogie final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

She’ll aim to make up for lost time next week when she’d prefer to be winding down for Christmas, but that’s a very small price to pay for Rena Buckley. The opportunity to be an ambassador for women in Gaelic Games is something she takes seriously. Taking her place among world champions and Premier League footballers is a subsequent necessity.

“There’s an awards thing for the Irish Times on Friday as well, so I’ll have to take both Friday and Saturday off work. But if you’re going to be counting your pennies like that you’ll never get anywhere. It comes with the territory,” says the 11-time All-Star.

“I think in terms of GAA, people get really hung up on losing money like that. But it’s not exclusive to GAA. It’s the same for a lot of athletes who represent Ireland internationally — rowing, athletics, basketball, swimming, gymnastics. I wouldn’t be cribbing in any way. I’ve gotten an awful lot from playing GAA and I’m very content. I can’t complain.”

Rena Buckley has had more successful years than 2017. The full-back from the Inniscarra club captained Cork to the All-Ireland camogie title at Kilkenny’s expense three months ago, but this was the first year she was involved in an O’Duffy Cup triumph without it also being accompanied by the Brendan Martin Cup a fortnight later. Six camogie-and-football doubles have shaped her unrivalled career.

The significance of this year for the 30-year-old stems from the number of senior All-Ireland inter-county medals she has now acquired — 18, more than any other player in history, male or female. As she delivered her acceptance speech as Gaeilge from the Hogan Stand on 10 September, the social media audience hailed Buckley as an exemplary role model.

“There were a few people I looked up to when I was younger, but the person I really loved was Sonia O’Sullivan,” she explains. “I actually met her last year and I was completely star-struck. I couldn’t even talk. But I had loads of sporting heroes. That’s really important to have, especially females.

Rena Buckley speaks at a presentation on Creating Team Culture "Especially with anything official, you have to represent well." Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“The possibility of being a role model yourself is probably something you become more aware of as you get a bit older. Without over-thinking it, you do eventually realise that it’s really important to set a good example — especially with anything official, you have to represent well.

“Sport is for everybody, young and old, male and female, and if what you’re doing has encouraged somebody to play then you’ve had a positive impact. You’ve done a good thing, and you’re fortunate to find yourself in a position to make that impact.”

Regarding her decision to use the native tongue to greet Cork’s 27th All-Ireland camogie title, Buckley says: “I got loads of phone-calls, letters and e-mails about it afterwards. I suppose I’m kind of accessible with work, people can get in contact with me fairly easily.

“I was really struck by how many people were taken with it. It was lovely. There was one e-mail from the chairman of An Ghaeltacht in Kerry, which was really nice.

“All-Ireland final day, while it’s a huge sporting occasion, it is something bigger than that in Ireland. There’s a huge cultural attachment and it’s important not to disregard that.”

Defeat is not something one immediately associates with Rena Buckley. A glance at her CV suggests a sporting journey devoid of disappointment. Yet in order to understand the origins of her success, it’s important to recognise the setbacks along the way. Beneath a congested mantlepiece of medals and mementoes, the pain of past failures with club and county has helped to fuel a burning desire for victory.

Rena Buckley 18/9/2005 Aged 18, Buckley won her first All-Ireland medal when Cork defeated Tipperary in the 2005 camogie decider. Source: INPHO

And while, quite remarkably, she has left Croke Park as a runner-up after just four of the 22 senior championship finals in which she’s been involved, there’s never been any danger of the value of the All-Ireland medal being diluted. The euphoria this year of the Galway hurlers, in contrast to the heartbreak of the men and women of Mayo’s football panels, served as a timely reminder of its worth. Buckley has experienced both sides.

“I’ve had plenty of losses, especially with the club, where you start wondering afterwards where you go from here. You learn a lot about attitude at times like that. Even this year in the camogie with Cork, I don’t think we were the best team in the competition, to be honest. But we made sure we were right on the day. That makes a huge difference.

“Losing is terrible. It’s not the end of the world, but there are times where you feel it’s not far off it either. The 2007 All-Ireland final in the camogie is one that stands out. I had a poor game and I was very disappointed. The same with 2012 — I was playing full-back and the full-back line got a bit of a roasting on the day. They were two tough days. But those days drive you on for the next day as well.

“I had a couple of years with Cork in the middle of my career where I was barely hanging onto a jersey. I put in a huge effort in terms of my training to get myself back up the ladder, but I definitely had times where it wasn’t going well at all. I had to take a long, hard look at myself one winter. It was a case of pack it all in or give it a huge effort, but I put in the effort and it’s gone okay since.”

She adds: “An All-Ireland is an All-Ireland, no matter how many you’re lucky enough to win, and I would definitely never take one for granted. I also know that my time is getting shorter. Because of that, when you’re older you’re nearly pushing it even more.

“It takes a huge effort and a lot of good fortune to win an All-Ireland medal. I’ve never lost sight of that. No matter how many of them you might have, they’re never easy to win. The number [of medals] has never really made a difference to me. Some of them came with a bit more luck than others, but they all came as a result of a huge effort.”

Rena Buckley Buckley in possession during the 2016 All-Ireland senior ladies football final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The significance of her status as the most successful player in the history of Gaelic Games is something Buckley insists she hasn’t given much thought to. With a business to run and having only recently graduated with a Masters degree from UCD, she hasn’t had time to bask in the glory. On Leeside they’ve spoken of erecting a statue. Buckley has managed to see the funny side of a suggestion that hasn’t been made in jest.

“I’m more likely to be thinking about sorting out a pension or paying bills instead of looking back and thinking about what I’ve won,” she laughs. “Look, I’ve been really lucky. I suppose I would be very conscious in the last year or two that some of the attention has been deflected away from the team.

“I’ve gotten a good bit of attention, which wouldn’t really be what I’d look for. That’s out of my control as well so I don’t get too stressed about it either. But I don’t think there’ll be any fear of a statue popping up somewhere anyway.”

Some time away from the clinic over the festive period will offer Buckley the chance to unwind and collect her thoughts. She’s looking forward to the Poc Fada in Inniscarra on St Stephen’s Day, as well as finally sitting down to watch the recording of Cork’s one-point win over Kilkenny on the second Sunday in September. A catch-up with a close friend and former team-mate is also on the agenda.

After stepping away from inter-county camogie and football for 2017, 17-time All-Ireland winner Briege Corkery was overtaken by Rena Buckley on the medal count. Buckley will value Corkery’s input as she assesses her own options for 2018.

The only certainty for Buckley in relation to next year is that if she does return in Rebel red, it won’t be to bid for a double. She is, in her own words, “too old” to hold down a dual mandate any longer.

Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery Buckley with close friend and Cork team-mate Briege Corkery. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Having dropped football in favour of camogie this year, she admits that there is a level of intrigue about the challenge the footballers now face. End-of-an-era talk continues to echo in the aftermath of their failure to win an All-Ireland for just the second time in 13 seasons.

She’ll make a decision in the new year, but there are plenty of factors to consider in the meantime. Chief among them is the desire of Buckley’s boyfriend, family and friends to see a little more of her.

She explains: “The main thing would be that when you’re playing you have very little time to give to anybody else — the people closest to you. You can look at that and say there’ll be plenty of time for that when you do give up, but I wouldn’t be that deep a thinker when it comes to it really. We’ll see how it plays out.”

If there’s a sense that Buckley is contemplating calling a halt, it fades when she’s asked why a player who has already conquered unscaled heights would want to keep climbing. Significant mileage is on the clock, but there’s still plenty of fuel in the tank should she require it.

“I just really, really enjoy it. I still enjoy the training, even from a fitness and health point of view. Training is easier than it used to be too. It’s not the same slog, it’s much more controlled. It can be difficult at times but it’s not a case of run until you drop.”

Buckley’s eyes narrow, and with a gentle shake of the head — as if taken aback by the realisation of how much it means to her — she references the sense of satisfaction extracted from a sporting summer of high stakes.

“I love the championship. I just absolutely love it. You can’t replicate the buzz you get from it. It’s unreal, especially the knockout element of competition. It’s really something special. Fantastic.”

Rena Buckley Reunited with the O'Duffy Cup in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Whenever the end does come for Rena Buckley, she’ll have no shortage of memorable years to reflect on. However, 2017 might transpire to be the one that marked her transition from Corkonian hero to national treasure.

“This year I’ve really noticed that I got a lot more cards and letters from people outside of Cork,” she says. “I suppose I’ve been struck by that. I actually got one this morning which was really lovely.”

Buckley reaches to retrieve her phone from her bag and produces a photo she took of a card sent south by a young female fan from Kildare.

‘Rena — I just wanted you to know, you’re my sporting hero.’

“It’s nice to get stuff like that in the post instead of bills — although I get enough of them as well! But stuff like that is so lovely. Why would I crib about expenses or having to go to up to Dublin for functions when I get things like that?

“That’s not going to last either, so you appreciate and enjoy it while you can. I certainly do anyway.”

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Paul Dollery

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