Rise Of Rory

From Leaving Cert to Wexford senior debut - 'I’d a right old game then so it was great craic!

It’s been a year of major progress on the senior stage for Wexford’s Rory O’Connor.

REWIND TWELVE MONTHS and Rory O’Connor was not long after putting his Leaving Cert exams to bed.

He wasn’t thinking of the start of a Wexford senior career but soon had to embrace it.

Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U21 Munster & Leinster Media Day Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

In the build-up to the All-Ireland senior quarter-final against Waterford, he was approached by Davy Fitzgerald.

“It was the Thursday at training in Wexford Park he came up to me and asked me, ‘should I start you?’

“I just thought ‘what is this?’ [I said] ‘yeah, yeah I don’t mind’. And he says ‘right I’ll start you’. So that was that. We played a 15-on-15, a short one in-house, and he put me on the second string, just so no one would come away thinking that I was starting.

“In fairness he didn’t release the team to the media until 20 minutes before the match, which helped. There was no hype about this, who is this chap playing. Once we were on the pitch, it was only announced over the intercom.

“Once you’re on the pitch, it’s the same sized ball, same lads. I ticked away then. I’d a right old game then so it was great craic!”

O’Connor thrived on the senior stage that day, showcasing the talent he had demonstrated in the underage ranks. He flighted over a fine point from play after half-time and created a couple of other scores.

Fitzgerald had kept in touch with him throughout the season, keen to keep the highly-rated teenager involved.

Rory O'Connor tackled by Lorcan McMonagle and Dara Moynihan

“He called me at the start of the year, and I was kind of mad to go in, but the parents were saying ‘look, Leaving Cert, focus, study,’ and I was like ‘that was fair’. (They) started training in November, it wasn’t ideal in that sense.

“Then we played a club championship match in April, got on okay, he gave me a ring then and asked me to come in. That was at the end of the school year, and we were studying all day and at nothing in the evening, so I said I’d go in and trained in the evenings.

“Didn’t make the panel for the Laois game, sneaked on for Killkenny in the Leinster semi-final, made the panel for the Galway Leinster final. There was no real chance to show yourself for those games because they were coming thick and fast.

“Then when Galway beat us we had two weeks to prepare for Waterford, and we had a few 15-on-15’s in house. I grabbed my chance there.”

In 2018, there has been no concealing O’Connor’s importance to the Wexford setup. He struck 0-5, including three from play, in their most recent game in Nowlan Park.

Tonight he’s a key weapon in the arsenal of the U21 side that face Galway in the Bord Gáis Energy Leinster final. On Saturday, he will be a vital component of the Wexford senior side as they face an opener in the All-Ireland series against Westmeath.

The hectic schedule of big games is something O’Connor takes in his stride.

Rory O'Connor signs autographs after the game

“You play it to enjoy it. If you’re not enjoying it, go do something else to freshen up. It seems that Davy promotes having fun, having the craic.

“Embrace it. Go out and express yourself big-time. If you’re tensed up and you’re tight and all, you’re not going to enjoy it whatsoever.

“Obviously you’re going to have a few nerves going out, but they’re all welcome if they’re in short bundles.”

First up is the focus on tonight’s game in Portlaoise and a chance to atone for the dismantling they suffered last year at this stage against Kilkenny. Manager Tom Mullally has them primed to perform.

Rory O'Connor with Tommy Walsh Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“Leinster final last year, we probably did him no favours,” says O’Connor.

“We didn’t show up against Kilkenny. But Tom is a serious serious coach, serious manager. He was with Mount Leinster Rangers. I think he was with Clara for a few years. He’s with Shelmaliers in Wexford now at the moment. He has great experience in managing teams.

“(My brother) Harry was captain last year of the U21s, I was playing U21, and with the seniors, and Jack is a senior hurler. Harry has gone off to Boston for the summer, I’m very envious! Me and Jack are still at home waiting to be called to hurl.

“There’s another cousin on the senior team, on the U21 team – Joe. He had a stormer against Dublin.

“With the U21, it was just get over the first match and it’s opened up our summer now. Obviously if you’re in the provincial final, you’re in the All-Ireland semi-final so beating Dublin was essential.”

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