Munster matters to Clare captain Patrick O’Connor
*By Cian O'Connell *
April 7. Patrick O'Connor and Conor McGrath were on the comeback trail; that was the date marked for them to return to training at Clare GAA's splendid complex at Caherlohan.
O'Connor, who had a shoulder operation in November, and McGrath had worked together extensively throughout a demanding rehabilitation spell.
"Yeah, as it happened we both came back on the same night, the 7th of April out here in Caherlohan," O'Connor recalls.
"There were so many nights back through the years where you are thinking I don't want to go training that night and that was the beginning of a hard block of training between League and Championship. We had been finished with the League and our preparation for the Championship began on the 7th of April.
"It had been earmarked as a particularly tough one, but you were just delighted to get out there."
Just being on the field, talking, hurling, centrally involved brought a sense of 'satisfaction' for O'Connor.
"Other times you may be thinking that Championship is so far away with a good slog of training to go, but definitely there was massive satisfaction between myself and Conor that we had finally got back out on the field to train with the lads.
"Simple things like warming up and warming down with the lads, the craic that you would be having, particularly after a hard training, all the natural endorphins are bouncing off the group.
"It tends to be good craic, you miss that kind of thing a lot. Simple things like that and then obviously lining out at the weekend, that is what we all love to do and you couldn't do that either.
"Between the two of us we were delighted to see the end of it. We are two, three months on and we both have had no setbacks or anything like that. It is a sign that we were exposed to a good medical group."
One of Gerry O'Connor and Donal Moloney's first acts was to appoint Patrick O'Connor as captain even though he was recuperating.
"I felt pressure on myself just from the point of view of getting back into the team," O'Connor explains.
"I took the view that when the captaincy was given to me that it was given to me for what I had done from when I had started to when I was named captain.
"I wasn't going to try to reinvent the wheel or try to do anything different. I was definitely, when it came to game day anyway, just keep focusing on performance and what I can bring to it."
As Clare's Munster Championship Semi-Final against Limerick edged closer O'Connor craved to be part of the action at Semple Stadium. Scratching that itch was important too.
"I put a bit of pressure on myself to be in the shake up. I was pushing and pushing the physios to let me back a bit sooner, just looking for that inch anywhere I could get it. I suppose that pressure turned into relief and satisfaction.
"First of all when you got the all clear and second of all when you are named on the team. After the match then the culmination of relief and satisfaction that you were able to put all those together."
Ultimately that victory means Clare are preparing for a first provincial decider since 2008.
Delivering down south was precisely what Clare wanted to do. "Absolutely we laid our cards on the table at the start of the year," O'Connor admits.
"No talks of All Irelands, All Ireland series, it is Munster Final, it is Limerick.
"We put all our eggs into the one basket, to beat Limerick. When you do that it is natural enough as it comes closer and closer that this is the day you have been talking about in training that pressure does come on.
"It probably showed a bit in our performance at stages which was nervous looking, but what the group took huge satisfaction out of was when Limerick did come back at us a few times we put together five or 10 minutes that pushed us out that bit ahead again. That is a good sign."
How much of an impact has Clare's poor recent record in Munster have? "Yeah it does, there is no point in dancing around it because it has been very poor from us in Munster," O'Connor states.
"It really gets a Championship year off to a bad note when you lose in Munster. A lot of the time we lost having not played well which really starts off on a bad note.
"You are trying to pick it up then rather than the natural high of winning a match carries you on like after for instance beating Limerick.
"It did stem from that because we made it public that it wasn't good enough and it hurt us. Naturally enough there was pressure put on ourselves."
Now Clare are 'delighted' to be involved in the Thurles showpiece this weekend. Having watched Cork impress against Tipperary and Waterford, O'Connor expects a demanding assignment.
"We are all watching hurling long enough to know that there is no such thing as a bad Cork hurling team," O'Connor comments. "They are always very, very skilful and very, very dedicated, they play the game hard and fast.
"This Cork team is no different, I'm not in a position to say why the results were why they were for the last couple of years, but they are certainly clicking this year so far and probably will be favourites for the Munster Final having taken out who they have taken out on merit."
The momentum Cork have generated carries summer importance according to O'Connor. "They are a fine team, they play hurling the way it should be played, hard and fast and direct," O'Connor remarks.
"They seem to be all backing each other up, you can see that on the sideline as well.
"They seem a very united bunch and that mirrors out on to the field then because they seem very united and in it for one another. When a team is like that and when they have momentum behind them and you all know the Cork crowd, the way they have got behind this team, it poses a big challenge for us now.
"We can't wait to go out to tackle it because we have never been in the position. This group of Clare players has never prepared for a Munster Senior Hurling Final so we are just delighted, absolutely delighted that we are preparing for Cork in a Munster Final."
The thrilling thought of being part of such days assisted O'Connor on the road to recovery.