GEMMA O'Connor. Cork’s very own Wonder Woman. Warrior. Leader. Legend.
She didn’t need yesterday’s heroic effort at Croke Park to confirm her status as one of the greatest Rebels of all-time, male or female in either code. The St Finbarr’s native has long delivered in enough big games to merit a slot on TG4’s Laochra Gael show.
In years to come however, her soaring point to save Cork will be remembered as one of her finest moments. When Cork were behind in injury time the iconic number six launched a majestic shot that reeled Kilkenny in, before super-sub Julia White snatched victory at the death.
What was actually more impressive was that O’Connor was lining out at all. There were few players as motivated all season, after her red card a year earlier in a frustrating loss to Kilkenny, but a knee injury in the semi-final against Galway left her hopes of appearing hanging by a thread.
Not only did she make it for throw-in, despite not being named when the line-ups were announced, she hurled a relentlessly as ever. Orla Cronin and Amy O’Connor shared 0-5 from play, Laura Treacy was a colossus in the full-back line, Aoife Murray as assured as ever in goal, and Eimear O’Sullivan and Ashling Thompson dynamic in midfield.
But undoubtedly, O’Connor’s reading of the breaks and power were critical to upsetting the odds.
“I can’t really explain how special this is,” she reflected afterwards in the tunnel, as ‘We Are The Champions’ boomed out lustily in the winning dressing room. “I was devastated coming into it, it was a freak accident in the semi-final but only for the physio Colin Lane I probably wouldn’t be playing.
“In the first half it was kinda difficult but sometimes you can forget about the injuries and just go for it. I’m not young, I’m 32 years of age, and you don’t get too many opportunities but if I lasted five minutes or 50 minutes so be it.”
Despite the injury, manager Paudie Murray tasked her with shutting down Kilkenny ace Denise Gaule, who she held scoreless from play.
And it wasn’t just a case of popping up in the right place at the right time for that point. Cork anticipated a low-scoring joust, where scores from distance could be decisive.
“We were hoping myself or Ash or Orla Cotter might get a chance if we recycled possession around midfield. Thank God I did and put that ball over the bar.
“I’ve learned to trust my hurling and experience. We worked hard all year that if the forwards get the ball but can’t penetrate the defence, which can happen against Kilkenny, to recycle, recycle, recycle.
“And Julia then… what a way to win it.”
If O’Connor and Julia White were the key figures in the breathless finale, Cork’s energised opening 10 minutes, going three points ahead, and manic intensity throughout was just as influential.
“We’ve always been nice hurlers and, I dunno, maybe a bit too naïve and too honest. It something we’ve the kind of physicality you get from Wexford and Kilkenny. They’ve outmuscled us. “We weren’t going to be bullied or shoved off balls. It could have gone either way. We were patient and it paid off.
“There was a lot of negative press towards us this year. We knew what we were capable of. It wasn’t great but mentally we were tougher. It came down to a psychological battle. Patience is a virtue.”
Two letters scribbled on her arm summed her own approach: CA – controlled aggression.
“That means controlled aggression, be on the ball and have that bit of control. I was devastated after getting sent off last year. It was a message (to) ‘keep composed’.
“I always wear my heart on my sleeve and try and go out and give it my all. By no means am I a dirty player but I sometimes feel I’m a bit targeted and that I’ve to hold back I’ll get pulled for frees.
“I remember against Wexford at Páirc Uí Rinn earlier this year and I got hit off the ball numerous times, and sometimes players are targeted, but I didn’t react. You can have that aggression to get on the ball and to hit it with conviction but don’t give away silly frees or get drawn out.”
Captain Rena Buckley was the record breaker with her 18th senior All-Ireland victory, but O’Connor, along with Aoife Murray were winners for the eighth time in a camogie final. Some going too and the sweetest in her eyes.
“Coming into this I’d won seven and lost five and you can concentrate on the negatives, the games you lost. Last year we never got going, we failed to get into the game and physically and mentally we weren’t ready.
“This time we were. In the second half Kilkenny got on top, it could have been a draw, but this is the sweetest one alright.”