Jack O'Connor is embracing his destiny
By John Harrington
Wexford’s Jack O’Connor is just 22 years of age and about to play in his first ever Leinster Senior Hurling Final, yet seems totally unfazed by the prospect.
When he spoke to the press at Wexford’s pre-Final media event last week he radiated a calm, confident, insouciance.
That’s not the personality trait you expect to emerge when a posse of journalists hold an array of recording devices in the direction of a rookie player with little or no experience of talking to the media.
In that situation most would try to get the ordeal over as quickly as possible by uttering a few ‘one match at a time’ banalities to suck the life out of their interrogators.
But O’Connor was something different. He spoke with a breezy self-assurance and wasn’t afraid to give a genuine insight into how he approaches the game.
“When I play hurling I always believe, I don’t just play for the craic,” he said.
“I always believe we can go and try to win something. That’s basically it.”
Perhaps he’s so relaxed about playing in a Leinster Final because this is the sort of occasion he was also destined to be part of.
As a son of John O’Connor and nephew of George, he’s very much a scion of Wexford hurling royalty and from a very young age was unsurprisingly steeped in the game.
As a three-year-old he was Wexford’s team mascot when they defeated Kilkenny in the 1997 Leinster Final, and he fulfilled the same duties six years later in the ’03 Final when the result was reversed.
Maybe the reason he’s so relaxed about performing on the big stage is because it’s something he was always destined to do.
“There is (a sense of destiny) but it’s a choice,” says O’Connor. “I love playing, I love playing championship matches. That’s what I train for and when I train I know this is what’s going to be the end-product.
“I could be doing anything else in the world but this is what I love and this is what I want to do.
“With John and George there probably was a bit of destiny there alright.”
As much as hurling has always been close to a religion in the O’Connor family, for much of his youth Jack was happy to take an ecumenical approach to other sports.
He’s a very talented Gaelic Footballer, and also played rugby as an out-half with Wexford Wanderers and South Leinster.
“Yeah, I played a bit of rugby when I was younger, but when I got to minor my body started filling out a bit more, that’s when I made a choice to go playing hurling instead of staying with the rugby,” he says.
“There was a big influence in hurling in the household, my father and my uncle and people in the club, friends and family.
“But from nine to fourteen I wasn’t as big as the other chaps, I didn’t make the U14 panel and barely scraped onto the U16 panel, and came into it at minor.
“I always knew I’d get into the hurling but I just enjoyed the craic I had with rugby and soccer and other things when I was younger.”
O’Connor has made steady progress as a hurler over the course of the last few years.
He’s a tall, powerfully built, and explosive athlete, and as his hurling has improved he’s developed into the full package.
Davy Fitzgerald probably likes him all the more because his physical gifts are complemented by that innate self-confidence.
It’s easy to believe that when he set about trying to convince the Wexford players they could compete for silverware this year, O’Connor took less persuading than most.
The county’s supporters were hoping their team would produce the performance they did against Kilkenny in the Leinster Semi-Final, but O’Connor was fully believing it would happen.
“The team went in one hundred per cent quietly confident,” he says.
“We were coming in from the long grass, there was nothing said about Wexford, which was great.
“We knuckled down, did our homework and stuck to the game plan on the day. We kept doing what we had to do even when they hit us with a goal - we went back and did what we had to do in that situation.
“In the league similar things happened, and getting out of it (1B) built confidence.”
Wexford beat Galway in the League, but since then the Tribesmen have won seven matches in a row, including a demolition of reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the Allianz League Final.
O’Connor describes Galway as “a fantastic team” and knows they’ll pose a “big challenge”, but he’s not overawed by it.
He was reared on tales of Wexford teams doing great things in Croke Park in front of tens of thousands of passionate supporters, and he sees no reason why his generation cannot bring back the good times.
“People are on a high, there’s a real buzz in the county which is great for people, they haven’t had something to celebrate for a long time,” says O’Connor.
“I see that in my mother and father and uncles, that age group, it’s great to give them something to cheer.
“And more to come, hopefully.”