Rory O'Connor is living up to great expectations
By John Harrington
When you watch Rory O’Connor hurl, it’s hard to believe he only recently turned 19 years of age.
Already a powerfully built athlete, the maturity of his decision-making also belies his youth.
It’s a testament to Davy Fitzgerald’s faith in his ability that he gave O’Connor his championship debut as a starter in midfield for this year’s All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Final against Waterford.
And it’s a testament to O’Connor’s ability that he instantly looked at home at the highest level of the game.
After Wexford’s campaign was ended by defeat that day, O’Connor returned to his club St. Martin’s and is one of the main reasons why they won their first County SHC title since 2008 and will contest an AIB Leinster Club SHC semi-final against reigning All-Ireland champions Cuala on Sunday at Parnell Park (2pm).
In the Wexford quarter-final against Buffers Alley he hit six crucial scores in a row that helped St. Martin’s snatch a one point victory.
He then scored 2-7 against Gorey in the county semi-final and was hugely influential in the County Final too against Oulart-the-Ballagh.
As the son of John O’Connor and nephew of George O’Connor – two bona fide Wexford hurling legends – there would have always been a degree of expectation on Rory’s shoulders from a young age.
He comes across equally mature beyond his years off the field as he does on it, though, and sees no reason whatsoever why his surname should ever have been a burden.
“Not at all,” he told GAA.ie “You only add your own pressure. You decide that yourself if you want to put pressure on yourself.
“I'd be laughing and joking on match day in the dressing-room. Why get all serious before the match?”
His father John was one of the chief architects of the underage structures in St. Martin’s that has seen them win the last three county minor championships in a row as well as this year’s U-21 and Senior County titles.
He’s been a big influence so on Rory and his older brothers Jack and Harry who are both key players for St. Martin’s too.
“It's very simple what he says before match-days,” says O’Connor. “Keep everything simple, and do the simple things extraordinarily well.
“Never make anything complicated. When you're hand-passing the ball make sure it goes to hand. If you're striking it, strike through it. All of these things. If you're in that mind-set, you're grand.”
Rory and his brothers all had hurleys in their hands from a young age, but it was never forced on them.
Instead, John encouraged his sons to try every sport they could before deciding whether hurling, football or something else was the one they really wanted to dedicate themselves too.
“It was a competitive,” says O’Connor. “In the house we'd try to avoid talking about hurling as much as we could. We'd be batin' each other most of the time and fighting!
“Sure we played everything, not just hurling. We played rugby and football obviously as well as the hurling. I'd have played tennis as well, all those sports, they contribute then when you make the decision to pick one.
“They would all help you to be the player you are when you are a hurler.”
O’Connor will surely always reflect on 2017 as one of those milestone years in his life.
Back in April he contested a Hogan Cup Final in Croke Park with his school St. Peter’s College.
He then focused on his Leaving Cert before hooking up with the Wexford senior hurlers in time for that championship debut against Waterford, and now he’s experienced what it’s like to win a county senior championship for the first time.
“I've just been taking it step by step," he says. "I avoided the (Wexford) senior team at the start of the year. I said, sure, what's the point of rushing into it.
“I was content just focusing on getting the Leaving done. There was no pressure on me to go training or anything like that.
“Then there was the schools’ Final and I really enjoyed that because you're playing with lads you've been in school with for the last six years.
“We hadn't won a Leinster Final, we'd lost two Junior Leinster Finals. So when we then won a Leinster Senior Football Final it was the best thing ever.
“I was called into the Wexford senior panel in May and I was eager to go in but the parents were a little bit thinking after the Leaving would be time enough.
“In fairness to Davy, he didn't pressurise me to go to training, whenever I could go I could go. Sure it was great. Most of the work was done before coming up to the Leaving so getting out to do a bit of training was the best thing that could happen.
“And once the Leaving was over I went hard at the training and squeezed into the Leinster Final panel. Then there was two weeks to the Waterford game and I got the nod for that.”
O’Connor was only 18 when he made that championship debut in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final against Waterford but as soon as he set up Eoin Moore for a fourth minute point with a nice piece of play he settled quickly and looked right at home in the Wexford engine room.
“It was the best thing that ever happened me, yeah,” he says. “I could easily have lost that ball and things would have gotten worse and worse.
“I was worrying would I last 70 minutes. Would I even last 20 minutes and have the worst day of my life. But I just took every ball as it came. The first ball and I just handed it off and did something simple.
“I think the way we play kind of suits the way I like to play anyway, lots of running and a bit of running off the ball and always going forward.”
He’s already looking forward to hooking up with Wexford again next year and getting his first full season of senior inter-county hurling under his belt, but for now he’s fully focused on club duty.
It’s been a hectic few months on that front because St. Martin’s also reached the County Senior Football Final.
Between senior hurling, senior football, and U-21 hurling, O’Connor estimates he played 21 matches in 15 weeks, and so did many of his team-mates.
Eight of the St. Martin’s starting XV are still U-21, and there are 13 U-21 players in total on the hurling panel.
What they’ve already achieved this year has been remarkable, but O’Connor still thinks there’s more in the tank and is hopeful they can upset the odds against Cuala.
“Yeah, we are,” he said. “Sure, look, we finished up with the football and have had three weeks (to prepare). We all too a week off and we were refreshed coming back to training.
“Last week we had a few practice matches and we're coming into this match under no pressure at all. Everyone is gunning for it, sure how would you not want to play the All-Ireland Champions in their own home?
“All the young lads will enjoy the day out, big-time. We won't be under any pressure at all.
“There's going to be a lot of running on Sunday, we're going to really have to run at them.
“We probably play similar to them in the sense that they use their legs as well. It's not just blind hitting the ball over your shoulder. It'll be an interesting one.”