Quick learner O'Connor a class act
By Michael Devlin
Rory O’Connor’s senior inter-county debut for Wexford at the age of 18 in last year’s All-Ireland Quarter-Final against Waterford was the very definition of being thrown in at the deep-end.
The way he describes it though, you’d nearly swear it was no big deal. As we’re learning more and more when we watch O’Connor play with a maturity beyond his years, he’s a pretty cool customer.
“It was the Thursday at training in Wexford Park and Davy came up to me and asked me, ‘should I start you?’”, recalls O’Connor.
“I just thought ‘what is this?’ and said ‘yeah, yeah I don’t mind’, and he says, ‘right I’ll start you’
“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 it, '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!”
Wexford lost by four points that day in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, but for O’Connor it was another step in a whirlwind year.
The teenager was asked by Davy Fitzgerald to come on to the senior panel at the start of the season, but he held back to focus on his Leaving Cert studies at St Peter’s College, for whom he represented in football in the Hogan Cup final in Croke Park in April.
Summer came and the county door was still open, and so he took his place on the bench to win a Leinster medal before bursting onto the scene against Waterford.
Autumn saw his club St Martin’s win their first ever county senior hurling championship in October and O’Connor also collected a Wexford runners-up medal in football.
In 2018 though, the focus has solely been on hurling, and the rising star has established himself on Fitzgerald’s team who play Westmeath in Mullingar in the All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-final on Saturday.
More pertinent though is the integral part he’ll play the U21 squad that will face Galway in the Leinster U21 showdown with Galway tomorrow night in O’Moore Park.
O’Connor is one of eight U21s double-jobbing for the seniors, and he admits that transitioning back to a new setup in a short space of time was evident in their slow start in the semi-final win over Dublin at Parnell Park three weeks ago.
“We were released a week before it, our first time kind of getting together,” he said. “The U21 management had the structures in place and we just had to kind of fit in.
“It's hard to manage that for eight lads to come back and to fit in to a team that a team have been training for the last couple of months. But the first half kind of showed, we had a gale force wind and we were snap shooting and we hadn't settled down.
“I kind of knew in the back of my head that if we were in it at half-time, we were only three points down, I couldn't care less about the wind. We just got going, we got a goal at the right time, right at the start of the second half and then we kind of kicked on.
“It's generally the first match, 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.
“Dublin were off the back of three round-robin matches so they had done the whole process of buses, tog out, match, and were familiar with each other.
“You could see in the first half, we weren't familiar with each other, even though we had played with each other all the years up.
“But just took us to the second half to really settle down and get to the hang of things.”
O’Connor has always been a quick learner, as Galway may find to their cost tomorrow evening.