FOOTBALL: Versatile – The Big Interview with Roscommon footballer and Irish boxer Lisa O’Rourke
By KEVIN EGAN
LISA O’Rourke will swap boxing gloves for football gloves as she aims for Lidl National Football League glory in Birr tomorrow (Sunday).
Less than two weeks ago, Roscommon player O’Rourke was joint-captain of the Irish team that travelled to Croatia for the European U-22 boxing championships, leading by example when she came away with the gold medal in the 70kg weight division.
In between, she travelled to Belfast for a training camp with the Irish Elite boxing squad, and also made sure she was available to tog out for Castlerea St. Kevin’s in their Roscommon Division 3 League match against Strokestown.
She has also played the majority of this season’s games for Castlerea Basketball club but they didn’t have a game last weekend.
Whether it’s in the ring or on the field, O’Rourke is not one for taking a backward step, or prioritising rest.
She makes no secret of the fact that her plan is to qualify to fight in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris and to follow in the footsteps of her older sister, Aoife, by representing her country on the biggest stage of all.
But for as long as playing multiple sports is feasible, that’s what she plans to do.
While Roscommon were qualifying for their tilt against Wexford tomorrow, O’Rourke was preparing for her European semi-final bout against Israeli boxer Lia Pukkila.
Before the fight, she was single-minded in her focus. As soon as she stepped out of the ring, her thoughts turned to Parnell Park very quickly.
“I had a lot of texts from people saying congratulations and well done, but the one I really wanted to see was the one from Mam telling me that we had a League final to come, that the girls had beaten Kildare,” she recalled.
“I’ll have a different type of fight on my hands to win my place back on the team, but all I can do is train as hard as I can once I get back, and hopefully I’ll be able to play some part. “I’m new to the panel but some of the girls that have been there a long time have played lots of semi-finals in the League and championship without winning any, so to win a game like that against a very good Kildare team has everyone in a great mood now, looking forward to the Wexford match.”
Lisa made her inter-county debut for the Rossies in 2020 and made an immediate impact, scoring a goal against Offaly in the TG4 Intermediate Championship less than ten minutes after coming off the bench to make her debut.
But despite trialling for the county panel in 2021, she wasn’t selected, and when her inexorable rise up the boxing ranks continued, it seemed as if her footballing career might be limited to playing with her club.
She travelled to Tokyo with the Irish Olympic team and trained with Aoife and the rest of the squad, and it was only due to some cajoling from her club coaches that she put her hand up for selection for Roscommon under the new management team, led by Ollie Lennon.
That proved to be a blessing for Roscommon as Lisa’s development has progressed at a rate far beyond anyone could have imagined.
Her stamina and physicality is exactly what you’d expect from an international class boxer, but her skills and her team play have been exceptional, leading to her selection in the pivotal centre back position against Sligo, from where she was selected as Player of the Match in Roscommon’s crucial six-point win.
In that fixture, Lisa was a meaningful presence under the Roscommon kickout, she was central to the core work of linking up the play and making good support lines, and she also has tempered her tackling technique to greatly reduce the number of fouls conceded, while still holding her ground and checking runners effectively.
All of her power and strength was still there – as well as her unique high handpassing action that she insists is just natural, and not trained as a way to exploit her height and reach advantage – but it was now part of the overall package of a proper, intercounty footballer.
“This year has been great, the new management team is very positive, very encouraging, and I’m loving it at the moment,” she says.
“Boxing will always be my number one sport, but as long as I’m able to keep everything going, I will.”
Like all great love stories, a little bit of rule-breaking is central to the plot. In Lisa’s own words, her boxing coaches “probably wouldn’t be aware of quite how much I’m doing with the footballers, they think I’m doing a bit more resting than I am!”
She currently spends three days each week in Dublin, training full time, before going home for weekends, supposedly to keep ticking over and rest for the next week ahead.
It doesn’t quite work out that way, as instead she trains with Roscommon on Friday nights, has a game at the weekend, and fits in club and basketball activity when she can as well.
“I wouldn’t be one for taking a day off!” is a fairly understated way of putting it.
“My goal is to earn a spot in the World Championships in May, and if I can keep hitting all my targets, Paris in 2024 is on the cards,” she said.
“It’s not clear yet what the weights will be at the next Olympics and obviously I wouldn’t go in against Aoife, I’ll be targeting whatever is the next weight down, but I have time to plan that out.
“For now anyway, the cardio and athletic work you do for the footballers, even the skills and footwork, are all useful to have in the ring, so I think my boxing helps my football and my football helps my boxing.
“But a boxing career could be over any time if you get the wrong setback or the wrong injury, and I want to have football and basketball there too, there could very easily come a time when one of those is the number one sport for me.
“Aoife would be the same, and some day maybe we’ll end up togging out together for Castlerea or Roscommon, it’d be great if that happened.”