As a former World Rugby Player of the Year, Keith Wood is as good a judge of sporting excellence as any, and the former Munster man, who appeared on OTB’s Clare Mount Rushmore, believes that hurling giant Jamesie O’ Connor was in a class unto himself, with raw talent that was simply frightening.
Having led the Banner county to two All-Ireland medals in the 1990s, O’ Connor’s brilliance stood apart from the rest of the pack in a manner that was “almost daunting and frightening,” according to Wood, who experienced playing alongside the Clare ace at inter-county youth level.
“It was just like a different game playing beside him. There was just no comparison, I was doing everything with huge amounts of effort. He was doing everything with no effort.”
Many of sport's greatest athletes simplify the game in which they play rather than complicating it, and in that regard, the four-time All-Star winner was no different. He scored the winning point in two finals, in 1995 and 1997 respectively, and collected a man of the match award for his match-winning exploits in the latter.
Having shared the rugby field with many great players for both Munster and Ireland, Wood believes there were similarities between O’ Connor’s performances for Clare and former Ireland rugby captain Brian O’ Driscoll’s magical moments for his country.
Like O' Driscoll, once O’ Connor was on the field and he wanted to turn it on, you “had an opportunity to win anything,” said Wood.
Wood also discussed the influence of Anthony Foley on Clare sport as a whole.
While both Wood and Foley were born in Limerick, it was in Clare where each man honed their athletic ability, first on the hurling field before transitioning to rugby at a later stage.
The GAA has a huge reach in Ireland, and while other sports continue to grow, the allure of representing your county at the senior level in either Gaelic football or hurling was a huge pull back then for prospective players and continues to be despite the growing popularity of soccer and rugby across the country.
“For us, we were always Claremen, we wanted to play hurling for Clare. That was the drive that we had when we were hurling.”
Both would go on to have illustrious careers for Ireland and Munster, playing a role in developing the sport in their home county.
Their efforts on the rugby pitch brought many new fans from Clare to the sport, which has long been a hurling stronghold and remains so to this day.
While he excelled for Ireland, somewhat surprisingly his time spent playing hurling remains the most enjoyable sport that Wood participated in.
The bond that he formed with the game as a youngster continues to this day and when O’ Connor drove Clare to their All-Ireland victory in 1997, Wood, along with Foley, was in the stands at Croke Park to take it all in, which he described as a “dream.”
Leaving swiftly after the final whistle, Wood made a beeline back to Killaloe to participate in the celebrations back home.
Why does Wood feel this way about his first sport? Well, as he puts it “there is a kind of madness and a joy to hurling,” and this is represented in the many great hurlers that were in the running to make the Clare Mount Rushmore.
While all of Wood’s choices did not make the official OTB list, Kieren Fallon did, with Davy Fitzgerald, Jamesie O’ Connor and Anthony Foley making up the rest of his personal list.
You can view the final list of athletes who made the Clare Sporting Mount Rushmore on otbsports.com here.