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Monday 25 March 2019

Leader of the pack

AIB All-Ireland senior club final preview: Katie excelling in role of captaincy

St. Martin’s captain Katie O’Connor (right) at the AIB All-Ireland final media day with Slaughtneil’s Gráinne O’Kane
St. Martin’s captain Katie O’Connor (right) at the AIB All-Ireland final media day with Slaughtneil’s Gráinne O’Kane

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and can be any age too.

It's not like Katie O'Connor is the baby of this St. Martin's team, but she's far from one of the older heads either. It hasn't stopped her stepping into the role and excelling.

The mark of a good captain can be seen in many ways. On-field and off-field leadership differs but most great leaders know big learning opportunities readily sit with disappointing moments. It about how those moments are used, that's where little gains can be made.

In that regard, O'Connor's reaction to the question of the 'most important moment' of the season is revealing. Rather than pick a battling win, an instance when victory was secured by hard work and perseverance, she took a sidestep and offered up the positives that came from her side's last loss.

'Against Oulart (in the group stages), we were missing a good few and we didn't win the match. It's the last match we did lose, it was back in July, we were missing a few girls but we came within four points of them.

'I know it's not something most teams would be happy about but at that stage in the year we actually were happy with that and realised Oulart weren't this force to be afraid of any more and we were up there with them now.

'While we were four points away we had girls to bring back and we realised that we are well in this, [that] it's time for us to start getting up there with Oulart.'

And they were able to do that by knocking out Rathnure in the county semi-final, then finally ploughing past Oulart-The Ballagh in the decider.

Those are the two closest contests St. Martin's have faced in this knockout run, and O'Connor admitted they have been the toughest games too.

'I still think the toughest matches we've played this year, out of the Leinster campaign, the All-Ireland campaign and practice matches, the toughest matches we have played are against teams in Wexford. The toughest matches to get over the line I thought were Rathnure, and then Oulart as well.'

They did get through the county championship last year too, moved on to Leinster championship but lost out to Thomastown in the decider. It was a step that came a little too soon for the Piercestown-based club.

'It all happened very quickly,' said O'Connor. 'We found ourselves in the county final and I don't think we really took in the occasion and suddenly we were after winning it. We were just happy to have made a Leinster final, it was kind of thought of as bonus territory.

'[This year] we weren't just there to show up and be happy to be in a Leinster final. We knew they were missing girls so the fear factor was taken away a little bit, which is something that held us back previous, we'd sometimes fear teams like this. We knew they were missing players, we were missing Lisa (Firman) and Sarah (O'Connor) too but we just believed that we could do it.

Belief has been one important factor. O'Connor also pointed to the return of Noeleen Lambert as a key factor and there's more to it than just being a quality player. 'She brought a good bit of experience, she taught us how to win, she knows how to win.

'The years previous we never had the push in the last ten minutes of the match, we didn't really fully know how to get over the line, but from Noeleen and other players they taught us how to push on at the most critical part of the game and how to get over the line.'

They did more than get over the line in the All-Ireland semi-final against Inniscarra. It was tough going in the first-half but, as O'Connor said: 'It was winter hurling at the end of the day, it's not the most skilful hurler that going to perform on a day like that, it's the player that's going to work the hardest and wants to win.'

And then it was looking forward to the final, the big day in the big stadium, and O'Connor doesn't believe it will faze her side. 'No one fears playing in Croke Park,' she said.

'Everyone just seems to be looking forward to it, something to be excited about, especially for those of us who haven't played there before, which is basically all of us except for Mags (D'Arcy) and Noeleen.'

O'Connor steadfastly refused to admit to doing any speech prep 'in case I jinx it', which is hardly surprising when she said this is not a moment she's even ever dreamt of:

'You dream of winning county titles, you don't even dare to think about winning an All-Ireland title. It is not something I've dared think about. It's hard believe it's happening and to win it would be incredible.'

Wexford People

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