Reshuffle has delivered big deal for joker in the pack
Conor O'Brien's positivity has won him a recall to the Tipperary set-up, writes Dermot Crowe
EVERY dressing-room has a blend of personalities, the stoic and earnest natures mingling with the breezy types who help lighten the mood.
Tipperary's comic relief valve is Conor O'Brien. He is not Tipp's best hurler nor the most sought-after by the autograph hunters, but his popularity in the squad is undeniably high. The converse is that there are few as tenacious and aggressive when it comes to the main business at hand.
That he is selected for today's league final, pinning down a place on the team at left half-back, is testament to a fine run of form this spring and a streak of resilience which is his calling card. He has had to overcome the crushing disappointment of being left off the panel for most of 2011, when Tipperary failed to successfully defend their All-Ireland title, and his response to that judgement was exemplary. He worked like a demon and never gave up hope of being recalled. In 2012, he was.
That was a significant achievement for many might have seen his demotion by Declan Ryan's management team as a mortal blow to his inter-county career. In 2010, he was the first hurler from éire óg Annacarty/Donohill to win an All-Ireland senior medal since Pat Fox and you have to go back to the 1940s to Willie O'Donnell to find one before that. In his club he is accustomed to carrying large loads, taking on responsibility and not complaining about his lot. Nothing came handy.
Last year the west Tipperary club reached the county semi-finals for the first time since 1967. O'Brien, along with his brothers Damien and Ronan, played a key role. In the semi-final defeat to Thurles Sarsfields he moved to centre-forward for the last 15 minutes on Paudie Maher, scored a point and set up another 1-1. He hurled for Tipperary's intermediates for four years and also represented the county at minor and under 21 level. In 1999, he finished runner-up in the national Féile skills competition to Cha Fitzpatrick having spent much of his early career as a forward.
Most of his Tipperary senior career, which began with a call-up from Babs Keating in 2007, has been at corner-back, where he made his championship bow in the win over Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 2008, a first on Cork soil since the 1920s.
"No doubt about it he was the most positive figure in the set-up," says retired Tipperary hurler Benny Dunne. "Since he came in he has made an impression on everybody, he is the crack master and the joker in the pack. He is well regarded as a player and a person. He has a presence from a social and playing point of view. But when he needs to get serious he is straight down the line. One of the leaders and motivators."
O'Brien brings a set of characteristics that are charmingly old school, at a time when Tipperary's mettle has been questioned and the charge of being "soft" peddled on the back of hefty defeats: Kilkenny last August, Cork last February. "His strong point as a hurler," says Dunne, "is that he is the one guy in the backline who has a bit of the devil in him. He plays more on the edge than the others. Out of the six backs, he has the most needle."
Dunne sees O'Brien as the kind of personality and force that Tipp needed. With Michael Ryan on the management team, a no-nonsense defender in his day, O'Brien's strengths have not gone unappreciated. He has enjoyed a freer role on the wing rather than the corner where he has spent most of his time as a Tipp senior.
O'Brien's maiden championship saw him win a Munster medal, tightly policing Tony Griffin in the final against Clare. The following year he was dropped ahead of the All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick, having featured throughout their Munster campaign, and he played no part in the final loss to Kilkenny. In 2010, he was last sub on against Cork in the first round of the championship when Tipp were badly beaten; he started in the qualifiers against Wexford but was dropped for the next match against Offaly. He made a late appearance against Galway, didn't feature in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Waterford and came on in the final with 20 minutes left for Conor O'Mahony. Nothing suggested he would not be part of their plans a year later but the change of management meant a fresh review of the panel.
O'Brien's recollection is as follows: "You go through all the things from disappointment to a small bit of anger. When I look back at it now I suppose a lot of it was to do with myself. I suppose I came back at the start of 2011 not sure that my fitness levels were as high as they should have been. I got two chances, one against WIT and one against Kilkenny in the league. I mean, I didn't play well enough. When you don't play well enough you have nobody but yourself to blame because when you get the chance it means it's your jersey and it's your jersey to hold on to if you do well enough. But if you don't you are leaving yourself open. Inter-county hurling is a competitive environment if you don't produce the goods."
He is referring to the first-round league match in Thurles in February, 2011. At half-time, six points down and struggling, three Tipperary players were replaced. O'Brien was the fourth to go after 49 minutes. All five subs were deployed with 15 minutes to go. After being dropped, O'Brien still followed Tipp avidly. "I was very disappointed when the lads lost the All-Ireland final in 2011. I remember being above in the Cusack Stand and feeling sorry that I wasn't with them. Being with lads for four or five years you are with them longer than even members of your own family. You build up relationships with the lads."
He never relinquished hope of getting back. "You have to believe. I went back that year and pushed as much as I could into the club hurling and tried and do as well as possible with the club and see will you get the call. In fairness to the lads who have been over the team in the last few years, if you are hurling well enough with the club you will get a chance."
He was told he was being let go over the phone. "I rang home and talked to my dad and the brothers and the whole lot. I just said it to them. I went back training with the club the following night. I was captain of the club that year which was a major honour and that kept me going. I mean, life goes on. At the end we are Tipp supporters so you hope that the team would go well.
"I remained optimistic that I could get back in. When you're 25 or 26 and that happens you're still hopeful. I hurled for the Tipp intermediate team for four years before I managed to get into the senior set-up. If I had to go hurling intermediate (with the county) I would have because when you're young enough and have the time to do it and feel you can do it, you want to give it a lash."
His club chairman Vinny Ryan remembers the surprise at his demotion and the player's determination to earn a recall. "A real team man," says Ryan proudly. "At that level you need everything to be buzzing to have it right. The year they won the All-Ireland, to give an example, he would often call out to my house for a chat and the wife was after baking scones. There were a couple of lads there, my own lads hurl as well, they were there and Bridget said to Conor, 'will you have a scone?' and he says back, 'Jesus, I can't – the diet'. But he was so mad for one after he says to her, 'I will have one and a cup of tea. Don't tell anyone'."
O'Brien has learned to be patient. Two years on the county minor panel failed to nail him a place but he won a spot on the 2006 under 21 side that reached the All-Ireland final. "It wasn't the most talented group," he recalls. "We only had one or two on the senior panel at the time. Fr Tom Fogarty was over us and he put me in corner-back. I had never hurled corner-back up to that. First-time hurling in an All-Ireland final, hurling above in Croke Park. We drew the first day and then we got beat in the replay in Thurles the second day, Richie Hogan scored a goal in the last minute to beat us.
"When I was minor, I was a forward. When I played my first game for the minors in 2003, I was corner-forward. After minor, I was down in Waterford IT, playing Fitzgibbon, we won a medal in 2004 and I was hurling around midfield, but came on in a few games at midfield and wing-back, and they were my preferred positions – midfield or wing-back – but then Fr Tom moved me back to corner-back in 2006."
After his first season in 2008 with the seniors he earned an All Star nomination. They won the league that year and added a Munster title. "It was a very important breakthrough for the team, and for the likes of Larry Corbett, Brendan Cummins and Eoin Kelly, it was a long time since they won it in 2001. Paul Ormonde was captain as well and the relief on those lads' faces when we won the Munster championship, it was the same as winning my first championship game down in Cork, winning your first Munster medal is a huge thing and the league win definitely gave that team a lot of confidence."
Today's league will not be won easily but Tipperary head to Nowlan Park with restored confidence and abundant scores to settle. No player could appreciate the chance more than O'Brien. "Like, it's still the league, the priority is June 9 v Limerick in Limerick but at the end of the day it's a national title up for grabs. We are looking forward to it (the final), we are looking forward to going down there (Nowlan Park), we want to play against the best and Kilkenny are the best and it's an opportunity to go down there and see what we're made of."