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A new age for Cork camogie

October 12th, 2015 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

A new age for Cork camogie Image
A special moment: Cork captain Ashling Thompson is overcome with emotion as she celebrates the county's fantastic All-Ireland final win against Galway at Croke Park last month. (Photo: Cathal Noonan/INPHO)

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Check out eight-time camogie All-Star Jennifer O'Leary's monthly GAA column

IT was a strange feeling. Waking up to camogie’s biggest day on the calendar this year – the recent All-Ireland senior final between Cork and Galway – was a very different experience for me. 

Having retired from inter-county camogie in January this was the first time I attended an All-Ireland final knowing that I’ll never be out on the Croke Park sod again in an occasion like this. Again, it was strange.

In past years when I was involved with Cork on All-Ireland final day, I’d get up early, and feel those familiar knots of nerves and excitement. There would be a rigid morning routine of breakfast, a puck-around followed by team meetings before mounting the steps of our bus for our journey to GAA HQ, where we’d pull in through the tunnel beneath the stands of Croke Park. 

Obviously, it was different this year. The pressures, the thought processes, the collectiveness of the team didn’t consume my thoughts this year on this day.

But this wasn’t the first year I’ve experienced not being part of it all. I took a few years out in the past, travelling in Australia. I watched the 2008 final in Brisbane. Cork won. I was in Sydney for the 2009 final. Cork won, again. 

This year – just last month – I watched from the stands in Croke Park itself. Yes, you guessed it, this fantastic Cork team worked their magic and achieved victory with ease, defeating Galway 1-13 to 0-9 in front of over 16,000 fans.

In the past years of watching from the outside in, I felt the pangs of missing out and missing it. There was unfinished business for me. I had always felt I could return and work hard to get my place on the team. 

But this year I felt somewhat lighter, less burdened by questions circling around inside my head. I felt a surge of acceptance and certainty that my retirement decision was the right choice.

Still, in the lead up to the final and on the day itself, those familiar questions were asked.

‘Do you miss it?’

‘How do you feel about not togging out today?’ 

‘Would you love to be out there now?’

And there were others whose ‘you poor crater’ look said it all. 

A close friend of mine, Cork camogie legend Fiona O’Driscoll, texted me at half-time in the final, from somewhere in Croke Park, reassuring me that All-Ireland final number one, for a former player now watching on, was always the hardest. It gets easier after this one, Fiona said.

Yes, it felt strange when I saw the sea of red warriors warming up on the pitch before the game, lining up to shake Michael D Higgins’ hand and, as is custom, following the band around the stadium before the throw-in.   

I did experience brief moments of ‘what if’ and ‘could I have done it’, but these feelings soon dissipated and I breathed in the whole experience so much more than I ever would have in the past. 

I began to observe all the many things I never got the chance to notice when I was playing there myself. When you are in that bubble of the starting 15, it’s hard to remember what you hear and see, as time passes ridiculously fast.

Those precious minutes on the pitch before the game followed by the game itself always feel like seconds. You do become consumed with doing everything right, having your routine, visualising the type of game you’re going to play as a team and individually, but you rarely ever take in what others are doing around you.

On that special Sunday (September 13th, 2015) I was granted the opportunity to observe what happens from the stands and I noticed quite a few things.

I could see that Cork looked intensely focused, yet relaxed, during their warm-up. It was well organised and well drilled. There were very few ball drops, they looked like a tight unit, and they were ready for action.

Cork goalkeeper Aoife Murray was absorbing the atmosphere and relishing the occasion as she looked up to the crowds in the stands during their march behind the band. She was enjoying the experience, soaking up what All-Ireland final day had to offer, savouring every precious moment because it may have been her last. (Or is it? To be continued ...)

Ashling Thompson, Cork’s powerful captain, took control of her team following their handshake with the President, instructing them where to go, setting an example in organisation and not allowing her team’s mindset to wander or become distracted.

The younger members of the team, the new kids on the block such as Orla Cronin from Ballinneen, were lining up into their positions on the field and shaking out any nerves with a quick jump and fast feet before the throw-in.

Manager Paudie Murray looked on edge. He looked tense, a little nervous as any manager would be before their biggest game of the year. This was pointed out to me by my former Cork coach Brian Barry, who sat to my right. He too seemed to be feeling a mixture of nerves and tension. This team and game meant a lot to so many in Cork.

This was also the first Cork senior camogie All-Ireland final I watched with my husband, Paul, the first of many to come. I soon realised that he missed me out on the field that day. 

In a way he felt a bit guilty that I was not out there. He felt slightly responsible for taking me away to Armagh where we now live, despite being given promises of imaginary mushroom houses in West Cork to keep me at home. 

Paul also felt a little easier and relaxed this year, as Cork were coasting. There was never a doubt about the final result. Cork looked so impressive and determined all over the field. 

Yes, you miss Cork camogie, the thrill of the win, the team bonding and the cheer of the crowds as you lift the O’Duffy Cup. 

But, Cork camogie is in good hands. It’s time for the young and talented players in Cork’s arsenal to shine. My day in the county sun has finally set. 

The future is certainly bright. Cork have an incredible chance of achieving the three-in-a-row in 2016 – a feat that was last achieved by Wexford. Cork have done it before and they will do it again. 

The way Cork attacked at the throw-in a few weeks back, their dogged determination and the manner in which they made a statement of their intent from the word go was something to be admired. They were relentless throughout. This day was never going to elude them. 

I was so impressed with every girl on the field. 

Their belief was very obvious and they certainly played to their potential, if not surprising us all by how much this young team gelled on the day. The newcomers weren’t fazed by the big day. In fact, it drove them on. It is a very exciting time for Cork camogie. It’s a new age. 

If this bunch of players sticks together, I have no doubt that success will be theirs once more in 12 months time and beyond.

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