Record-breaker Buck­ley fo­cused on cap­tain­ing Cork to more glory

Nine-time All Star could make it 18 All-Ire­land win­ners’ medals to­mor­row

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - GAELICGAMES | CHAMPIONSHIP 2017 - Mary Han­ni­gan

It was back in 2004 that a 17-year-old Rena Buck­ley played in her first se­nior All-Ire­land fi­nal, the day end­ing in heart­break when Cork lost to reign­ing camo­gie cham­pi­ons Tip­per­ary by eight points. She won­dered if she’d get a sec­ond chance, if there’d be an­other day in Croke Park.

As it hap­pened, there were to be plenty.

When she leads Cork on to the pitch to­mor­row it will be her 22nd ap­pear­ance in a se­nior All-Ire­land fi­nal since 2004, 11 each in camo­gie and foot­ball, win­ning 17 of them. There has been only one year in the last 13 that she hadn’t a fi­nal to pre­pare for, and in nine of those she had two. The road to Croke Park, then, has be­come a fa­mil­iar one.

The numbers are mind-bog­gling, but one per­son who’s not that all that fussed about them is, well, Rena Buck­ley.

“Ah sure,” she tends to say when she’s re­minded of her record, putting it down to good for­tune, her team-mates and man­age­ment. Any­one but her­self, re­ally.

But if Cork were to avenge last year’s de­feat to Kilkenny then Buck­ley is likely to have to field ques­tions about an­other num­ber: 18.

That’s how many win­ning medals, in foot­ball and camo­gie, she would have amassed, mov­ing her one ahead at the top of the roll of hon­our of her long-time buddy Briege Cork­ery, who took this year out. She would also be­come the first woman to cap­tain her county to vic­tory in both camo­gie and foot­ball, hav­ing led the foot­ballers to suc­cess in 2012.

His­tory-mak­ing, though, is some­thing she’ll re­flect on when the boots are hung up.

“My­self and Briege would have got a lot of at­ten­tion last year [when they won their 17th medals], but sure, we lost the camo­gie fi­nal and it was all about Kilkenny after. It will be nice to look back on it, but for the mo­ment it’s all about this Cork team do­ing well.

“The cap­taincy is a huge hon­our, I’m lucky to be in­volved with two greats clubs, Donough­more in the foot­ball and In­nis­carra in the camo­gie, and they’ve given me the op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s re­ally spe­cial for me, to be rep­re­sent­ing my club and my fam­ily, I’ll be proud to be play­ing in Croke Park as cap­tain.”

In­nis­carra’s win­ning of the county ti­tle, and Buck­ley’s sub­se­quent ap­point­ment as Cork camo­gie cap­tain, helped her de­cide on which code to fo­cus on in 2017, an in­creas­ingly busy life mean­ing she couldn’t play both this year.

“I just phys­i­cally didn’t have the time to be keep­ing it up, so I had to make a choice,” she says. “Be­tween work [she’s a phys­io­ther­a­pist in Mac­room] and study­ing for a mas­ters in sports physio [in UCD], it just wasn’t pos­si­ble to do the two.” Did you feel lazy this year? “I did,” she laughs. “It was def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent al­right. It was so strange watch­ing the foot­ballers on tele­vi­sion, you’d love to have been part of it, but there comes a time. There was a five-week lay-off ear­lier in the sum­mer for the camo­gie team, so that was a weird ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I’d have been used to hav­ing a match ev­ery cou­ple of weeks any way. But we’ll see at the end of the year,” she says, not rul­ing out a re­turn to foot­ball, one that would be warmly wel­comed by the team after they saw their win­ning streak ended by Mayo in this year’s semi-fi­nals.

And the camo­gie team have their own de­feats to pon­der, Kilkenny get­ting the bet­ter of them again in April’s league fi­nal to re­tain their ti­tle, con­firm­ing their stand­ing as the coun­try’s top side hav­ing ended that 22-year All-Ire­land-win­ning drought last Septem­ber.

“Once you get that mon­key off your back, you can re­ally kick on. I played in a Cork foot­ball team that never even got to Croke Park, then we won our first All-Ire­land and went on to win five in a row. Kilkenny knew they were good enough, they just had to get a run of matches to­gether and they did that last year. We thought we were go­ing great go­ing in to that fi­nal, but then every­thing fell apart on us. Kilkenny came at that game with fierce in­ten­sity, they played ex­cep­tion­ally well, we’d no com­plaints. We were sec­ond best of the day.

“They’re hard to play against, their set-up is quite de­fen­sive so there’s very lit­tle space for our for­wards. And they break so quickly you have to be sharp as a back, they can re­ally pun­ish you. They were ex­cel­lent last year, and same again in the league fi­nal. Again, quite de­fen­sive, but when they at­tacked they pun­ished us, they pounced on a cou­ple of op­por­tu­ni­ties. They know how to win games.

“So it was back to the draw­ing board this year. It’s not the only fi­nal I’ve lost in Croke Park, and you tend to re­mem­ber the ones you lost bet­ter than the ones you win. They stick in your mind. But you have to learn from them. We came back from those losses and we can do it again.”

They got the mother of all frights, though, in the semi-fi­nal against Gal­way when, hav­ing gone eight points clear, they failed to score for close to half an hour, Gal­way’s late rally test­ing Cork’s nerve.

And they suf­fered a sig­nif­i­cant blow in that game too, seven-time All-Ire­land win­ner Gemma O’Con­nor sus­tain­ing an an­kle in­jury that rules her out of the fi­nal.

“She’s a huge loss, she’s cen­tral to our game, re­ally,” says Buck­ley. “She’s been a stal­wart of Cork camo­gie for so long, we’ll cer­tainly miss her ex­pe­ri­ence. But it’s a team sport, that’s why there’s a panel of play­ers, we just have to get on with it and give it our best.”

And when it comes to numbers, the only ones she’s in­ter­ested in are those on the score­board come the end of to­mor­row’s game.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROMBIE/INPHO

Rena Buck­ley: an in­creas­ingly busy life meant she couldn’t play foot­ball and camo­gie this year.

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