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Wexford Camogie Legend Loving Underdogs Journey

Wexford Camogie Legend Loving Underdogs Journey
By PJ Browne Updated

Coming into the new series of Underdogs, Claire O'Connor knew she'd be leaving the majority of the coaching to John Allen and Jamie Wall. The four-time All-Ireland camogie championship winner with Wexford was more interested in what she could add on a psychological level.

"I've just become a qualified life coach," O'Connor tells Balls.

"I suppose that was a major motivation for me: To get amongst the group, to understand people, to be exposed to people, to figure out the psychology behind the players.

"I have a huge interest in the factors outside a player's life that affect them on the field. That's 90 per cent of the problem when a player isn't going well, it's actually not what's happening on the field, it's how they are off the field."

Underdogs, which airs Thursday nights on TG4, this season sees hurlers who have never played at Liam MacCarthy level come together to form a team with the aim of taking on one of the top inter-county sides.

O'Connor's management experience was limited before the show. Though, she does have years of know-how gleaned from being part of a Wexford side which won three consecutive All-Irelands between 2010 and 2012. It also helps to have an All-Ireland winning manager like Allen, and Fitzgibbon Cup winning manager like Wall as part of the Underdogs backroom team.

The 2022 Underdogs management team of Jamie Wall, John Allen, and Claire O'Connor. Photograph by Eamon Ward

"I don't know if you can call U7s management! That's what I'm doing at the moment, managing the U7s hurling team in Rathnure," she says.

"I would have looked after underage camogie teams in the club, and you would have always been in doing coaching sessions.

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"I've never managed an adult team, inter-county or club. It's been a huge learning curve.

"The most important part of management is understanding people, seeing different perspectives, trying to develop the players into what they can believe about themselves and how they can change their thought process on what they can achieve. At least 75 per cent of winning a game is mental and sometimes the attitude overrides talent.

"The Underdogs would be leaning heavily on that. Going up against an inter-county team, they will be leaning on their mental strength to try and carry them through when they have moments of doubt."

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O'Connor says the worst part of the show was having to tell players they were one of three nominated for elimination prior to a weekly game. It left a question mark hanging over them, a feeling she understands.

12 September 2010; Wexford players, from left, Deirdre Codd, Claire O'Connor, Kate Kelly and Catherine O'Loughlin, celebrate at the end of the game. Gala All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final, Galway v Wexford, Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Sportsfile

"We always grow in adversity and any player that went into the room, and was saved, they learned so much," says O'Connor.

"In fact, I'd say they learned more than people who haven't been up for elimination. With the adversity of being pulled in for elimination, their personal journey grew more.

"A lot of the guys would have said, 'When I was called into the room, I had to do a lot of soul-searching - how much do I want this?' They really had to focus their goals. The guys who got saved came out with a next level effort.

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"Sometimes all it takes is a two-minute conversation on the sideline, and you can see where someone is at, and then they go out and have a brilliant 15 minutes because they might have just gotten a bit of praise that they didn't get for 15 years playing with their club. Not because it wasn't seen, but just because that was the everyday life in their club.

"I heard some of the guys say that they had more texts of concern for injuries from the Underdogs team than they had in the club in their entire career.

"That's just because a good bond has been created. Everyone gets lost in the club, and you don't make the effort to send those texts or to make the extra effort to see how someone is, whereas when you become part of a really good group of lads who genuinely look out for each other [that happens].

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"It's been a great journey. I think that's the biggest thing about. When you start these things, I don't think you really realise how invested you will become.

"When you've been developed yourself by other people on a serious level, it's hard to not want to go that far with players and people.

"Hats off to those guys like it is really hard to put yourself out there, especially in GAA circles, where you can be quickly knocked off any perch you were ever on - glory comes and goes very quickly."

Underdogs is not O'Connor's only recent on-screen coaching appearance. Along with her daughter Cialadh, she features in the Irish language film Róise & Frank as a coach. She also did the hurling co-ordination for the production.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMnoIX73zyk

O'Connor retired from senior club camogie two years ago. She's still togging out with the Rathnure junior team - along with her four sisters who also played for Wexford - as they aim to keep some minors not involved with the senior team still playing the game.

"We won the intermediate championship a couple of years ago, and I retired," she says.

"I was delighted because I definitely left remembering why I love camogie, that's for sure, because it was a great experience and we won during Covid.

"It's the first year since I think 1993 or 94 that none of my sisters have been involved. Eimear, my youngest sister, just struggled desperately with an injury. She tried for two years to play with a bad knee, and she could just never play. She couldn't even train, so she retired last year.

"We still have a huge love for Rathnure camogie. You'd be looking at every result, you'd be going to the matches. You felt like you were playing last year in the county final, that nervous anxiety before the game starts. Eimear and Ciara were still playing last year.

"My God, I'd just love to see them winning a county final. We haven't won since 2008, and they're always there or thereabouts but can't seem to get over the line. Maybe this is the year."

See Also: 79 Years After Last Kildare Final, Hurling Is On The Rise In Maynooth


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