IF DIARMUID O’KEEFFE has learned anything from being an intercounty hurler during the rolling lockdowns of the past year, it is an increased admiration for athletes in individual sports.

The Wexford player will finally get going with his team next Sunday afternoon with their league opener against Laois.

Over the past twelve months, the 2019 All-Star has got too accustomed for his liking to training on his own instead of in a collective environment.

“There’s only so many 4-5km runs you can do. Last March and April when the first lockdown came, I was running on the roads around Wexford town. I was genuinely broke up. I just couldn’t do it any more. I had to try and find a grass area to go running.

“It’s you and your own thoughts, just pushing yourself the whole time. It’s far from easy. It’s a great skill for people in a single sport like boxing or rowing or running or whatever it may be, that they’re just able to motivate themselves consistently on their own.

“I think the ratio of training to matches as it is, is nearly too much. We were doing enough training on ourselves, (now) just eager to get going and playing matches.”

Wexford had planned to return to training on New Year’s Day, aiming to start with a boxing programme. The layoff ended up being longer than they had could have imagined with the firm focus now placed on bouncing back from a limp showing in 2020.

A 13-point loss to Galway in their province, a seven-point reversal against Clare in the qualifiers and that was their year done.

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“It was as tame an effort to retain a Leinster title as probably anyone has come out with,” admits O’Keeffe.

“We just didn’t perform at all. It was flat, they were stale performances. On a personal level you just want to forget your performances, they were so below par. I expect so much more from myself and I know the lads do as well.

“The standout thing was we probably anticipated games to be coming back sooner than what they did. So we were trying to keep our fitness levels up during the lockdown and probably pushed a bit too hard at the beginning.

Diarmuid O’Keeffe in action for his club St Anne’s last year.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“As a result when games did come back, we were greeted with club championship first. Some of the lads probably reckon they had a better campaign with their clubs than they did in their county campaign, and hit form earlier in the season. 

“The year had dragged on so much, and for a long period of time you couldn’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel with games coming up. So the immediate thing was you just wanted to get a break from everything, completely remove yourself and just freshen up totally.

“Davy, he played his cards well in that sense that he only lasted a couple of hours and he said ‘I’m 100% committed to 2021′. And that gave the players a little bit of… We don’t have to worry, because in previous years it was ‘Will Davy/Won’t Davy come back?’ That was it. We knew where we stood.”

Dejected Wexford players after their loss to Clare last year.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Off the pitch, O’Keeffe works as a secondary school teacher, a role that has been challenging in itself this year after teaching remotely before the return to classrooms.

“For the first couple of weeks it worked fine, but the more it dragged on, it became very challenging to keep the kids motivated.  From my point of view, it provided structure to my day and was still okay that I was doing my training in the evening. It was far from straightforward to be honest, while the kids did well at the beginning, it didn’t take too long where they lost motivation. 

“I’ve seen a change in the kids since we’ve come back to school. I have found they have become a lot quieter, they have taken longer to come out of themselves. Before Christmas even, I would have thought they were interacting a bit better. It will come back eventually, the more time they spend in school.

“I know in my own club there is a big push on to actually try and make sure that all the kids that were there pre-lockdown come back and participate again. That’s really important, it’s inevitable that people lose interest and they are finding entertainment in other ways, gaming online, whatever it may be.

“You will lose numbers in underage setups, that’s inevitable. All you can do is keep plugging away and trying your best to keep the kids going.”

Diarmuid O’Keeffe at the 2021 Allianz hurling league launch.

Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

At the end of October 2019, O’Keeffe went travelling after his GAA commitments had ceased for the year. He visited Florida, Abu Dhabi, Australia and New Zealand before returning home in February 2020.

The world went into lockdown a few weeks later as the pandemic took hold and he appreciates that he got the chance to take that break abroad.

“We were only chatting about it with friends over the last couple of weeks, we were blessed to get away when we did. Looking back on it now, there’s an argument to say that we actually could have stayed away for a little bit longer than we did.

“I have a brother living in Australia and him and his wife had a child due at the end of February but it actually arrived the first week of February and we had only left there about a week or 10 days beforehan. Hindsight is great. We could have stayed an extra couple of months.

“Thinking back, I think the first game I was back for was Clare in Wexford Park. I wasn’t togged out at all. I got about 10/15 minutes against Kilkenny the next day and then Dublin in Croke Park and then everything just shut down after that. At the time we were probably saying ‘Jesus we could have stayed away for a little bit longer than we did.’

“Delighted to get away when we did and loved every minute of it. Wouldn’t change a thing. We were one of the lucky ones I suppose.

“He (his brother) FaceTimes me every Sunday morning when he’s on the golf course at 7 o’clock and the sun is beaming down. You don’t get long before you’re jealous of that!

“But he’s hoping to get home this Christmas, all going to plan. We have a wedding or two so he’s hoping to get home for that. He’s been over there 10 years now, so he’s happy out.”

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