“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work” – Thomas Edison
Failure might not have been an option for Apollo 13, as the famous quote from NASA’s Gene Kranz goes, but without it, Yvonne O’Byrne wouldn’t be where she is today.
The 22-year-old Model Farm Road woman won an All-Ireland Schoolgirls title with Mount Mercy as the youngest member of the team when she was 14. She captained her club Cork Harlequins at just 19 years of age, has skippered Munster at U16, U18 and U21 level and won a senior interprovincial title in 2011. Now she’s Munster’s latest Irish hockey international, part of a panel that is preparing for an assault on qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
That might sound like a synopsis of a seamlessly successful sporting career, but you don’t have to dig much deeper before O’Byrne bluntly and honestly reveals how hard she has had to work to get this far, and the many setbacks along the way.
“It’s been tough, but a good learning experience,” she says of her time with the national team. “It’s taken me a long time to get there. I got trials this time last year, but got dropped. That was a bit of a blow, because it gave me some hope and then tore it away.”
That chat with Darren Smith, the New Zealander at the helm of the Irish senior women’s team, wasn’t the first time O’Byrne had been given bad news by a national coach. She’s previously been in training panels for Ireland U18s and U21s, but when it came to picking the squads for major tournament, she always missed out.
“I’ve been dropped from so many teams, been in the training panels without getting picked for tournaments, it’s a recurring thing,” says O’Byrne. “When you don’t get selected, you take it hard; you don’t want to talk to anyone for a few days afterwards. But there’s always a few people in your life, the ones I’m closest to, the ones I train with, my coaches – they’ll always be onto me no matter what happens, telling me to keep my head up, believe in myself and to keep at it.”
When it happened all over again with the Irish senior side last year, tough-tackling defender O’Byrne could have been forgiven for thinking that her and international hockey weren’t meant for each other. But her Mount Mercy support network rowed in behind her in the shape of 150-cap international Cliodhna Sargent – also a club-mate of O’Byrne’s at Harlequins – and Darren Collins, the school’s head coach who facilitates the duo’s strength and conditioning.
“Darren Smith contacted me afterwards to tell me I was still on his radar and to keep training, and that’s when Cliodhna and Darren Collins took me under their wing. He trains myself and Cliodhna and gives up his free time for nothing, just because he wants to see us do well. Some coaches don’t care what happens to their players but he has played a massive role in my hockey career. We use the gym at the school and go running there; I really started pushing myself last summer and I came back to club hockey in September as fit as I’ve ever been,” explains O’Byrne.
Out of the blue, O’Byrne was invited to train with Ireland. Never knowing if she’d be asked back the following weekend, she completed a half dozen sessions and was stunned to find herself selected to tour Spain in January this year.
She believes Smith likes to test players’ mentalities, and had taken being dropped from that first Irish trial as a message that she needed to push herself harder and display some determination.
“Competitiveness is a big part of my personality, anyone who’s ever met me knows that. People used to tell me that PE class wasn’t the Olympics! I might not be the most talented player out there but I’m always going to keep pushing myself to get better, and not give up. It’s probably what got me back into the squad – I was like a little terrier who wouldn’t go away!”
O’Byrne is the latest in a famous production line of hockey stars from Mount Mercy College, who have produced almost all of Cork’s senior Irish international players in the past decade.
Cliodhna Sargent, Audrey O’Flynn, Miriam Crowley, Julia O’Halloran and now O’Byrne have all come through the Model Farm Road nursery – only Ashton’s Hollie Moffett is an exception.
The five were all on the all-conquering 2006 side which won the Kate Russell All-Ireland Schoolgirls Championships, the last Munster school to do so. O’Byrne was only 14 at the time, and was only in her second year playing hockey – soccer was her first love – but got a shock call-up to the side.
“I’ve never been so terrified. You’re in second year and you’re going up to play with sixth years, there’s nothing scarier. Cliodhna is now one of my best friends, but when I was that age she was the most terrifying person in the world – I still have the scars to show from my first training session,” she says, holding up her elbow to show she’s not joking.
“It was probably the best school team we ever had – we had something like five U18 internationals – and it was so exciting because we won everything. At the time people thought it would be the first of many Munster cups and Kate Russells for the school, but I only ever won one of each.”
Mount Mercy have reached and lost five Munster finals since that success, the majority to Limerick’s Crescent College Comprehensive, including an extra-time defeat in 2010 when O’Byrne was in sixth year and skippered the side. It clearly grates on her.
“As you get older you get more and more emotional going into the matches because you’ve given so much time and effort, but in second year you’re more terrified of making mistakes more than the gravity of the tournament you’re in. You’re thinking about stopping the ball and passing it, not where you are and what you’ve achieved.
“It didn’t hit me until after (I finished school) how much that 2006 tournament meant. At the time I took it for granted, because we won everything; the older girls had won everything on the way up so they didn’t know what it felt like to lose.”
Nonetheless, the school continues to produce quality sportswomen; this year’s senior captain Abby Oakes was the only Munster player on the Irish U18 side at the European championships in 2013, while defender Ciara O’Connell was also on the Ireland U19 soccer side that reached a European semi-final in recent weeks.
O’Byrne says the values head coach Darren Collins (pictured below with his Mount Mercy charges before a game) espouses – determination, constantly striving for improvement and encouraging players to take responsibility for their own development – serve the school well, with many of the senior team coming into school during their summer holidays to do fitness sessions and practice their skills.
To demonstrate her point – and with superb timing – current Munster U18 panellist Aoibhinn Martin wanders by The Rendezvous bar where our interview is taking place on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in July, hockey stick in hand, fresh from a session at the school.
“It makes me really proud seeing the girls doing it now,” admits O’Byrne. “It worked out well for me and I ended up making it, and the girls who are there now are pushing themselves even harder. They want to be on those Munster and Irish teams, and that hard work and determination will get them there in the end.”
O’Byrne never wanted to play for a club, but when it came down to it, she didn’t really have a choice.
“I was in fourth year, and Cliodhna (Sargent) was coaching in Mount Mercy. She told me she was going to pick me up, drive me up to Cork Harlequins and meet the captain, Johanna Hyland. I was still playing soccer which took up most of my spare time outside school hockey, but I was more or less dragged up there whether I liked it or not!” she laughs.
O’Byrne started at right-back for the first team that weekend. It was a baptism of fire, but first to congratulate her on her performance was Karen Bateman, another product of Mount Mercy and one of the finest Irish forwards of the past 20 years. After that, she was hooked.
“It was probably the best move I ever made; I toyed with going to other clubs but Quins have a lot of the same traits and attitudes that you’d find in Mount Mercy. I know we don’t have the best facilities, but the people make the club. You train in the most horrendous weather up there but there’s so much motivation and determination, it really is like a little family and everyone wants you to get the best out of yourself.”
Not long after a setback with Ireland underage selection, Quins showed their faith in O’Byrne by making her the side’s captain at just 19 years of age.
“It was a new challenge, it gave me responsibility and it gave me something else to look forward to. I did it for two years, then last season, I decided I was going to take a step back and enjoy my hockey; I’d missed out being picked for Ireland seniors, and it was easier to focus on myself when I wasn’t worried about motivating a whole team.
“I enjoyed the captaincy but it can be a distraction; when you’re focused on the organisational side of things you can forget about the simple parts of playing the game. Last season was the most enjoyable I’ve had at Quins for so many reasons – we just had a ball, there was loads of positivity.”
Coach Stephen Dale and manager Rob O’Sullivan have played key roles in O’Byrne’s development at Quins, as have the likes of Bateman and Rachael Kohler. The club has won all but two of the Munster leagues in the past 20 seasons but O’Byrne says they have bigger fish to fry.
“We know we can be better, but when we gel and play well we are as good as any other team in the country. It’s about always looking for more. We are never satisfied.”
All those leadership roles and experiences at school and club level can’t quite prepare you for your bow in the international game, though. O’Byrne debuted for Ireland against the Spanish in Terassa in January and admits she’s never been as nervous before a match: “I’m used to starting at club and interpro level; I never realised how nerve-wracking it is for a sub to come into a match that’s already settled.
“I’d like to say that after a few caps I’m not getting nervous but I definitely still do, especially against bigger teams. The older players – those on 50 or 100 caps – are still nervous beforehand, but then on the pitch they seem to relax.
“There’s so much at stake though. You’re not just competing against another country, you’re competing against every other person in your position. So there’s nerves related to that too.”
Having been named in the panel of 25 for Ireland’s summer programme, O’Byrne is now setting her sights on ensuring she stays there to be part of 2015’s tilt at Olympic qualification. The Green Army defeated higher-ranked opposition in Korea and South Africa en route to an unexpected Champions Challenge I silver medal in April,and they will need to do so again in next year’s World League tournaments to make Rio.
“The Champions Challenge I was a peak, but then we didn’t perform as well as we’d like in games in Scotland and Italy. We know we have more to give,” she said.
“The older players will say there’s been a total change in the mindset of the squad. There was a lot of negativity around past campaigns that had gone sour and hadn’t worked out, a lot of baggage from those tournaments. But there’s so many fresh faces now that don’t have any of that baggage.
“The coaching staff have brought in a positive mindset, they’ve told us that if we want to be in the Olympics we can’t just be aiming for the teams ranked 10th or 11th, we need to be beating the teams ranked fifth-eighth and above – those are the sides we are gunning for.”