Tuesday 17 October 2017

Jack O'Connor primed for Wexford's next step

Sunday’s Leinster final can’t come soon enough for Jack O’Connor, who eats, sleeps and drinks hurling. Photo: Sportsfile
Sunday’s Leinster final can’t come soon enough for Jack O’Connor, who eats, sleeps and drinks hurling. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Even though his lineage would suggest he had little choice in the matter, Jack O'Connor might have been lost to hurling and Wexford.

He's a regular in Davy Fitzgerald's Wexford side now, following in the footsteps of his uncle George and father John in playing for the Slaneysiders. But things might have went a different way as early in his life he looked set for a different code.

For a spell in his teens, rugby and to a lesser extent soccer had his attention. He was out-half with Wexford Wanderers and he lined out for a South Leinster selection too. And around the same time the Wexford underage selectors weren't too interested in him.

"From age nine to 14 I wasn't as big as the other chaps, I didn't make the U-14 panel and barely scraped onto the U-16 panel," he explains. "I came into it at minor.

"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. But there was a big influence of hurling in the household, my father and my uncle and people in the club, friends and family."

Even as he played away at different sport, hurling was a constant. He was mascot when Wexford won Leinster in 1997 and again when they were beaten in the 2003 provincial decider.

And when his uncle and father weren't on to him, the 1996 All-Ireland-winning manager Liam Griffin was there, poking and prodding at the young O'Connor to get out and work on his game.

"When I was nine or ten years of age he had me doing bits and pieces against the hurling wall in November," he recalls. "That's where it all came from."

He's now in his fourth season with the county, his second as a starter, and his brother Rory is involved too as Wexford's summer ramps up. Jack was forced off in the Laois game due to an ankle problem and couldn't train before the historic win over Kilkenny but he insists he's fully fit now.

Since beating the Cats, he's spent the last couple of weeks trying to both embrace the excitement in the county and keep away from it at the same time.

"When I play I put that to one side and just concentrate on playing, I don't look into the media," he says.

"I like to go home and see they're enjoying it, they're all behind me, but when I go out onto the field it's hurling and that's that. I don't get caught up in the other stuff.

"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.

"I see that in my mother and father and uncles, that age group, it's great to give them something to cheer. And there's more to come, hopefully."

Expectations

Wexford go into Sunday's Leinster final with Galway as underdogs but they've made a season out of defying expectations.

Bit by bit they have forced their way into the minds of hurling people around the country. And O'Connor admits he would have been circumspect if someone had to tell him how Wexford's season would pan out back in December.

"I suppose I would have laughed at it at the start," he offers. "But when Davy came in he made clear what he wanted to do with us, to get us into winning ways and winning habits.

"It took a while to start believing in that, but when he got us on board we started to see the results coming.

"In December I would have been laughing, but come January we had it straight in our head that we had a chance of winning and progressing in the league, and we were eyeing up the Leinster Championship. That's coming here now."

Having been up the steps once as a winning mascot, O'Connor will be looking to go one better and collect the Bob O'Keeffe Cup as a player.

He might have ended up chasing something else, but he wouldn't change it for anything now.

"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 - this is what I want to do."

Irish Independent

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