Cork captain Gemma O'Connor. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
tour de force

'Once I make a commitment then I'm back and that’s it' - 18 not out for Cork captain

11-time All-Star Gemma O’Connor is in her 18th season and 100% dedicated to the Rebel cause.

CORK CAPTAIN GEMMA O’Connor laughs when she’s asked what number season this one is.

“17 or 18, I am not too sure,” the 11-time All-Star smiles as she counts them up in her head. And then a giggle: “I don’t really want to discuss that.”

She may not want to dwell on it, but the St Finbarr star’s career has been a legendary one and it must be hailed. It’s her 18th season in the Rebel red, but she admits that she had to think long and hard before returning to go again.

After sealing back-to-back All-Ireland titles last September, it could have been the perfect time to bow out. But no, not for Gemma O’Connor. 

There was no one deciding factor, she concedes, with many assuming that maybe it was because she was made captain. But no, that came after the big decision.

“Finishing up last year, my brother said it is probably a good time to finish up if you want to,” she recalls. “I had a lot of family commitments this year. I made it clear to the management that I have to sacrifice loads.

“I had a discussion with the management before we came back before Christmas. I did think long and hard. 

“I had to be a small bit selfish because I am 34, I am not 18 or 19 where I feel like I have a long career ahead of me. It could be this year or next year that I could be finishing.

“I had to ask Paudie [Murray - Cork manager] and say, ‘Look, if I am coming back… if you are staying in place and the girls are, then I will be there. But if anyone is leaving then I am not going back.’

Once I make a commitment then I am back and that’s it. If things change during the year I just don’t down tools and say that’s it. I have made a commitment then to the team and to the management. Once you have committed that is it.”

A Collins Barracks-based Irish Army officer, retirement has been on 34-year-old O’Connor’s radar over the past few years. 

Not necessarily on her end, but from others. 

She’s questioned about it regularly, but she’s happy to keep playing the game she loves for as long as her body — and her life away from the field — allows her.

“People have a tendency — not out of anything bad — to say, ‘Is this your last year?’ or, ‘Are you finishing up?’, especially for females. Males, if you keep going for it or going as long as you can then no one bats an eyelid.

“But if you hit 30, you are almost expected to hang up the boots. I have been asked the question and have spoken about it for the last five years.

“I always knew I would play in around 32 or 33. Then life gets in the way as you get older. You have that bit more commitment; you have a partner, family, other things that people are sacrificing because of you as well. It definitely gets harder as you get older.

I am here for another year anyway, we will worry about next year.

100% committed to the Cork cause and firmly on home soil as she follows her career in the Defence Forces, O’Connor has recently changed jobs so she’s now working in the central medical unit permanently.

“I have a bit more flexibility with more of a more 9-5 job which suits. Before I was working in a training institution so there was a lot of outside working hours and robust training.

Martin O’Brien and Gemma O'Connor Celebrating last September's All-Ireland final win. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“I found myself getting tired and as you get older, that game has to stop too. I am in a better position I just hope it works out this year.”

Mental toughness, leadership and resilience are all skills she learned through both her professional and sporting journeys, and things she can apply elsewhere. 

The nine-time All-Ireland winner will be calling on all of them and more this year as Cork chase three in-a-row. Just how important is it that the group stayed together?

“It is crucial,” she nods.

I made a commitment in coming back this year that is the management were there and there was no loss in players, no shift in anything, that the consistency was there the same thing that has been there for the last few years I was definitely going to make a commitment.

“That is crucial, sometimes things might go a bit stale with teams year in year out. But for me, familiarity, consistency, especially if things work is crucial.

“For young players coming up there needs to be something permanent that is there. They need to have that familiarity going forward.”

What else is of vital importance is that camogie is competitive. 

From the outside looking in, many may think that Cork and Kilkenny are the top two and they’re miles ahead of everyone else. They are they two teams making finals and lifting silverware, after all. But in reality, they’re beating others by the narrowest of margins and on any given day, any game could go any way. 

Just look at Galway beating Kilkenny to the league crown, they’re on another level this year.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” O’Connor agrees. “We drew with them in the league. I felt like they have upped their game. We were lucky to draw with them in the league, and then in the league final I thought they were very impressive.

“They moved the ball well and created a lot of opportunities. And actually took their scores, it was quite impressive. They were definitely a different animal compared to what they have been in the last few years.

“We played Tipperary recently in the Munster championship. Maybe the scoreline didn’t reflect the game but it was actually a great game of hurling. They were some great scores and great play. It was probably only the last five or ten minutes that we started to break away.

“The likes of Tipperary have massive potential. You would hope to see them making that step close to the likes of Galway, Cork and Kilkenny. The potential is there.”

She concludes: “This championship will prove to be a close one.

There is no guarantee that we are going to win it, or Kilkenny or Galway. But that is what we are setting out to do. We are hoping that we can continue on the winning path.

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