Our eight-time camogie All-Star columnist Jennifer O'Leary ranks her top ten hardest opponents
IT’S a new year, but he’s the same old hard taskmaster, as the Sports Ed set another difficult task – to rank my top ten toughest opponents on the camogie field.
This got me thinking. A lot.
Finally, I got there, but it was a difficult selection process.
Each player I have chosen individually stands out in my memory for various different reasons and each one made me slightly jealous that I didn’t possess the calibre they displayed on the pitch.
I have played home, abroad and now up in the North, so there may be players you may not know yourself, but following my breakdown of why I dreaded playing against them, you will find yourself learning quite a lot about what they brought to the game and why they are to be admired.
10. Ciara Donnelly
I only recently witnessed what this player can actually do on the pitch. Ciara is a member of the Eglish team from Tyrone but plays county camogie with Armagh. We played her club in a challenge game last year a few times and marking her at midfield position was a very difficult task. She could score effortlessly from just inside the halfway mark and could win a game all on her own.
Her speed, her ability to lift her team’s performance and her sheer determination really impressed me. She’s a name you will hear in the future as Armagh strives to achieve junior All-Ireland honours this year.
9. Keira Kinahan Murphy (Kilkenny/Sydney Central Coast)
I played alongside Keira in University of Limerick and we won two Ashbourne camogie titles together but when I wasn’t playing with her, I had to mark her as we were often paired up in college training. She has pace, athleticism, natural skill and was a very clever marker that could easily dispossess a forward.
Keira also played with Kilkenny seniors for a number of years and we found ourselves often clashing and tackling each other.
Her desire to travel in her early 20s led her to Australia to play with the Sydney Central Coast team. For a year I, again, got the pleasure of playing alongside Keira, but alas we were once again face to face against each other in training, this time in the scorching heat. I can’t say I enjoyed these battles but one thing I can safely say is she pushed me to my limit and improved my game. She is a good friend and is definitely flying the camogie flag high in Australia with her brilliant style of play.
8. Síle Burns (Cork/Barryroe)
My lucky number eight and a name you are all familiar with. She was a stalwart of Cork camogie and an excellent footballer also. Síle will laugh when I say she inflicted a lot of pain on my former club Barryroe, but that was before she thankfully joined us in 2012 – a day that really enriched the community of Barryroe in so many ways.
Síle was a terror to play against and could individually win a game for her former club Rockbán with relative ease. There was one particular game where we played Rockbán in the championship and she scored at least four goals in quick succession at full forward. No matter what we did as a team we couldn’t counteract the powerhouse that is Síle Burns.
Proficient off her left and right side she can strike a ball brilliantly and her strength on the ball itself means that she is rarely dispossessed.
7. Pamela Mackey (Cork/Douglas)
Pam is a famous twin and a fiercely determined player who lives for the game. While I played alongside Pam for Cork she was always someone who trained hard and there always seemed to be a friendly competition between herself and her twin sister Katrina. They pushed each other, marked each other and paired up together as much as they were allowed to get away with. They were a great influence on each other.
Pam is a back who rarely gives you a chance to even get a sniff on the ball because of her pace and her touch-tight system of marking. When playing against her at club level she rarely allowed a high scoreline to tot up against her. She is a consistent player with more to come for Cork and club.
6. Claire Grogan (Tipperary/Cashel)
Claire is a player who has gone down in history as being one of the youngest to ever play at senior inter-county level – she was just 14 years of age when she made her debut with the Tipperary senior team. She was a part of the Tipp squad who experienced a dominant period in the late 1990s, early 2000s and she certainly was a player I admired.
She had it all: physicality, a natural carrier of the ball, intelligent in play and an excellent free taker. She had the raw ability to destroy her opposition and notch up many scores from her centre half forward position. While she retired at a relatively young age she will remain a name well known in camogie circles.
5. Joanne O’Callaghan (Cork/Cloughduv)
I can safely say that I know Joanne’s style of play like the back of my hand. The amount of games we played together, against each other at club level, the number of times we trained together and the many conversations we have had about camogie must now run into thousands!
Yet, despite my knowledge of how she plays with her sticky marking, her amazing fast feet on the training ladders and her lightning touch on the ball, it didn’t allow me to get the better of her as she marked me on endless occasions. I know she despised marking me but I can tell you I detested being marked by her.
She didn’t give you an inch and it was infuriating because she was so nice about it as well. If she hit you a knock by accident she would apologise!
4. Jill Horan (Tipperary/Cashel)
Now a face you see featuring on The Sunday Game commenting on camogie, Jill was a brilliant player who lit up the camogie field with her classy play in midfield and forward lines. She had a fantastic change of pace and fooled opponents with her dummies and shimmies to avoid being dispossessed.
I often saw her tearing defences wide open with her speed and effortless control of the sliotar. She played with Tipperary in their glory days and captained her county in 2011.
3. Therese Maher (Galway/Athenry)
Therese was a formidable centre back who orchestrated her backline with sheer class. She ended her illustrious career on the biggest of highs when she finally achieved All-Ireland glory after 16 years of trying.
She was a player who improved year in year out and on her retirement she was the fittest I have ever seen her. Therese was a back any team would love to have in their arsenal and I was delighted she finally won a senior All-Ireland final when they defeated Kilkenny in the 2013 final.
2. Kate Kelly (Wexford/St Ibars)
The list of accolades awarded to this Wexford inter-county star would amaze you. She is the complete athlete with incredible fitness, a motivated mind set and she exudes class when it comes to performing any skill in the camogie game.
Kate is also a well-known voice in the WGPA, which strives to make positive change and support for ladies football and camogie inter-county players.
She is someone I came into contact with many times in All-Ireland finals and at the height of championship seasons. She regularly received player of the match awards and most definitely always got her name on the scoreboard.
One skill that always left me mesmerised was her ability to strike long-range points on the run from the most awkward of angles. She will definitely go down as one of the greats.
1. Gemma O’Connor (Cork/St Finbarrs)
What can I say about this player that hasn’t already been said? She makes me proud to be from Cork. She is not only a fantastic camogie player but a unique, one of a kind individual.
If you had Gemma on yo
ur team, you certainly had the best chance of winning but if against her – as I was many times at club level from underage level up – you certainly wouldn’t forget it.
I think the first time I ever met Gemma was in her home pitch when we played her club in the league at U14 level. She was a name everyone was talking about afterwards. For someone so young she displayed excellent ability and never stopped running.
As each year progressed she got stronger, fitter, leaner and developed an inspirational way with words. At training, nobody wanted to be paired up against her as she was always going to beat you in a sprint, overwhelm you in a physical battle and the commitment to getting to a ball first was never mastered more than by her.
The 2015 Camogie Player of the Year is still producing top class camogie and there’s plenty more gas in the tank yet. Gemma deservingly tops my list as my toughest ever opponent.