Ben Conneely, Helen Dolan and their daughter Liadan
LIFE has got an awful lot busier for St Rynagh's talisman Ben Conneely in the past year after he became a father for the first time.
Offaly SHC final preview
Ben and his partner, Helen Dolan became the proud parents of a daughter, Liadan last November. Life has now become a great juggling act for Ben and Helen as they manage domestic life with a huge passion for hurling. Ben was captain of the Offaly team that won the Christy Ring Cup this year. A brilliant defender and an inspirational leader for St Rynagh's at centre half back, he has emerged as one of the best Offaly hurlers in the modern era while Helen is an outstanding camogie player – she has been a key member of the St Rynagh's side that have won five Offaly senior camogie titles in a row, though pregnancy ruled her out of the 2020 triumph while she also returned to the Offaly camogie squad this year.
“I have had a busy year this year,” he smiled. “Between both of us we had to do a lot of juggling with training and stuff but we enjoyed it and Liadan got out and about, going to training and matches. She probably won't remember it but we will remember bringing her to training and matches.”
Often Ben and Helen trained beside each other on different pitches in Faithful Fields and family members came to the rescue, pushing Liadan around in her buggy while her parents did the hard yards in the pursuit of success.
“We were able to manage it and she seemed to be always in good form.”
Just 24 years of age, Conneely spoke about the joy that the hurlers and camogie teams have brought to St Rynagh's and Banagher. “There was a long time when we won nothing. Before the camogie team won the first one, for ten years previous to that they didn't even have a senior team. Helen is eleven years playing camogie now and she remembers playing when St Rynagh's didn't have a senior team. Now fast forward ten years and they have won five in a row and we are going for three in a row. I don't think anyone would have been able to see that ten years ago.”
Conneely first played senior hurling for St Rynagh's in 2014, coming onto the scene as desperation mounted in a club who had last won the Sean Robbins Cup in 1993.
He was aware of St Rynagh's proud history but unburdened by it. “I was only sixteen but didn't feel any pressure. It was only after 2016 (when they won the title) and you saw people coming out onto the field that you said, wow it is 23 years since you won one. Half of the team were only six or seven back then and it only hit you when the game was over that it hit you about what it meant to people. When we won again in 2019, the exact same thing happened again. It was like it was 20 years again since we won one.
“It is a great town and parish when it comes to sport. It is the same for camogie. The camogie team probably get a better following than us half the time. The club is so much into the GAA and the support we get is brilliant.”
Ben's brother Gary is also a key member of the St Rynagh's team and their father Michael was a brilliant performer on that 1993 team. An All-Ireland senior hurling final medal winner in 1994, Michael Conneely was a heroic figure at midfield, with his long distinctive locks and his insistence on hitting most frees out of the ground endearing him to the Offaly hurling public.
Conneely remembers his father being emotional after the 2016 win. “After the first one, he definitely was but there was a few. Ronan Hughes father, Fergal Hanamy is on the panel and his father is Martin, they were there in 1993. 20 years was a long time for those men. It probably meant more to them than us and there was a lot of emotion.”
Ben Conneely was only born in 1997 and he grew up in an era where St Rynagh's struggled at all levels. Underage success dried up and his only underage medal was a minor “B” hurling one. “I didn't even get to any finals or win anything. It was always B competitions,” he grinned.
Since 2016, St Rynagh's have become a truly dominant force, winning again in 2019 and 2020 and now hunting down three in a row.
“After 2016, there was a great release and we probably took our foot off the pedal the following year. We have won it now and we don't need another one sort of thing. Then when Ken (Hogan) came on board and the backroom team came in, it started all again. We are just taking it one game at a time and three in a row hasn't even been mentioned this year.
“We have got the momentum going and kept going. We had a slip up against Birr but it probably worked out well for us. We had to reset.”
He was questioned about their thirteen point defeat by Birr.
“Birr had everything to play for that day and we had no answer to them,. There were other reasons. Okay we were through but you can't really focus on that. We probably hadn't got our heads right and listened to ourselves too much. It was unlucky for Birr that they didn't get through. We were lucky we were through and it didn't matter.”
He is unsure about why St Rynagh's were so off the pace that day. “Birr just wanted it more than we did. It was one of those games.”
Kilcormac-Killoughey were overcome by a point in the semi-final and he talked about the challenges with meeting the same team three times in the one year. “It is extremely difficult. They had two losses against us and were really up for it. They tried a few things and they worked for them. We started really slow in the second match against them this year and luckily managed to come back. We probably learnt from the slow start we had in that game but it was a tough game. For years, they have been the team we have always had good battles against.”
Were you surprised that one of those good battles wasn't the 2020 final when St Rynagh's were clearly the better team?
“I suppose the thing with that is when the county final is your first championship match, a lot of factors come into it. It is hard to know. Some lads might just see it as another game, others might be mad up for it because it's a county final. It is an anomaly that we have never had before and hopefully never have again. We took it as a county final but fitness levels could have been different, depending what way they were training and we were training. I'm not really sure because I was with the county. I know the lads were doing a lot of work.”
It has been a hectic year for Conneely as he helped Offaly win promotion in the National Hurling League Division 2A, win the Christy Ring Cup and then come instantly into St Rynagh's who were preparing for their 2020 county final against Kilcormac-Killoughey in August.
“This year it was difficult because we didn't have a break. A couple of days after the Christy Ring and I had to get back into the swing of it. For me, it fell on my two weeks holidays from work so I didn't get much of a break. At the end of the day, when you are winning matches you forget about those things. You enjoy matches and you are willing to miss out on other things to win matches and get to finals. Other things are pushed aside and it takes a lot of work but it is enjoyable.”
As a county hurler, he is very much in favour of the split season. “When you are with the county, you don't want to be strained in both directions and coming in and out of the other. You just want to focus on the one and it gave us a lot to focus on. It allowed us to keep the momentum going and if we had to go back in the middle and play a couple of matches with our club, we might have lost that and played badly in a couple of games. You could lose confidence. Little things like that make a difference.
“That is the way I looked at it. You will have a full year. 100% with your county and then 100% with your club. The opposite is that we are lucky with the facilities in Rynagh's with a floodlit pitch and astroturf. Other teams don't have that. That might go against a split season. Every county GAA team has lights but not every club does. That is the one negative from it. A lot of people are talking about that but other than that I think it is a big positive and you get to focus on both.”
He agreed that weather conditions at this time of year are an issue but pointed out that you could also have a very bad January, February, March when county teams are playing. He is uncertain about whether it would be best to go with club first, county second or vice versa but he remains happy that they have distinct seasons.
Since Conneely started playing, O'Connor Park in Tullamore has been the venue for all Offaly senior hurling finals and most of the big county games. He is happy with this, though he wouldn't mind sampling one final in Birr.
“I like Tullamore with the county and club but when you are playing club games, you have smaller numbers and there is something about Birr when you are in there. It is brilliant. I have always heard of the great county finals in Birr and I would like to have experienced that. It probably won't be done now and the pitch in O'Connor Park is one of the best pitches in Ireland. To be playing on that for a county final, you can't really ask for anything else.
“For example if it is raining this week, Tullamore will probably hold up brilliant. You know what you will get. There is a good pitch there. You might miss out on the atmosphere a little bit but the pitch is there. It would be brilliant maybe someday to play a county final in Birr but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. The work they do to keep the pitch going in Tullamore is savage. You couldn't fault it this year. Birr have really improved on theirs massively in the past couple of years and are pushing for games. There is no fault with their pitch but the Tullamore pitch is brilliant at the moment.”
He is looking forward to the final and the challenge against Coolderry.
“Coolderry are very hard to stop when they get the momentum going. I don't know what it is aboyt Coolderry but they love hurling. When they put a green jersey on, they seem to turn into something else. Every time you play Coolderry, it is a tough battle and I am looking forward to it. If you don't go into a final confident, there is no point in showing up. Both teams will be up for it and have a bit of momentum going so it will be interesting to see what way it is going.”
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