By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Donal O’Rourke is relishing getting back on the pitch with the Cork hurlers in preparation for next season, after a debut campaign as coach under manager Pat Ryan that did not end with qualification from the Munster bearpit but offered evidence of significant progress and hope for the future.
A career coach even as he came through the Waterford underage hurling ranks as a colleague of John Mullane’s and played in goals at senior level during Davy Fitzgerald’s first stint with the Déise, O’Rourke earned his inter-county chops in camogie and will be a very interested observer of today’s Glen Dimplex All-Ireland senior semi-finals at UPMC Nowlan Park.
The Cappoquin man was manager of the Waterford team that ended a lengthy absence from the elite level by making the quarter-finals in 2018, when this afternoon’s opponents Tipperary proved too strong, and 2019, when they led subsequent champions Galway by five points in the second half before wilting late on.
Galway boss Cathal Murray was impressed and when he was searching for an extra edge to for his side after losing the 2020 All-Ireland final, he called the man known throughout his native county as Duck. The result was the O’Duffy Cup heading west once more after a three-point victory over this evening’s rivals, Cork.
He is not surprised by the progress made in Waterford that sees them between and hour and 70 minutes away from a first All-Ireland final appearance since 1945 under the stewardship of former All-Ireland U21 and minor hurling-winning supremo, Seán Power.
“When I took them on they were very young but they were fierce eager,” says O’Rourke. “It was to try to guide them the right way. I knew it was gonna take four or five years to get them properly ready for senior. We played Galway in the first round of the championship and it was a real eye-opener how far we were between bridging the gap to the top team. It was night and day. We were light years off it.
“We all learned from it, management, players and county board. You’ve a couple of choices. You can sit and talk about the gap or you can try and close the gap and in fairness, the girls put their shoulder to the wheel. We got them properly conditioned and improved their skillsets.
“We pushed Galway so close and I reckon it was because of the work we’d done. People forget it was Waterford’s eighth weekend in a row after a void game was replayed in the middle of it. I think that might have been a factor but they made massive strides.
“I think they stood still then a year or two and didn’t kick on but last year, there was massive progress with Derek Lyons. The team was getting older and more talent coming through and this year they seem to be doing very well again. They’re coming of age and are at their peak basically.”
Niamh Rockett, Beth Carton and Lorraine Bray were important figures four years ago but the team totems are nationally renowned now, each winning All-Stars in recent years.
“They were very quiet and raw when I took them on first but they got more confident and as they got more confident, their leadership skills started coming.
“Niamh is a fantastic leader. She’s a bit older than the other girls and she guided them in the right direction. Niamh had her problems (with her knees) but she got herself so fit and brought a great culture of the gym training into Waterford camogie.
“Beth and Lorraine were different type of leaders. They’d be out on the training pitch and just go for every ball and go through anything for you. Niamh was a fantastic leader on the pitch always too but she wasn’t able to prepare as well as they could because the soft ground at the start of the year never suited with her legs but the culture she brought to the gym, the girls rowed in behind her. So the three of them were exceptional leaders in different ways.”
As a player though, Carton is as good as there is.
“Beth is different. What Beth chooses to do today, no other girl would do. But then tomorrow, that makes her do stuff that no other girl can do. She just works so hard on her game. She just maximises and tries to improve her game the whole time. She was an incredible player to be around. You get great energy off Beth.
“I personally think that I had the privilege of coaching two of the best camogie players that have played the game in the last ten years or more: Niamh Kilkenny in Galway and Beth Carton in Waterford. I was very privileged to have coached incredible camogie players but they were different class.”
Kilkenny is unavailable to Galway this year but O’Rourke knows that Murray, Robbie Lane and co will have them primed.
“Cathal is an incredible manager. He’s really talented at what he does, himself and Robbie Lane, his S&C and right-hand man. What they’ve done for Galway camogie is phenomenal. I would say they changed camogie forever, the two of them. They changed the way camogie teams prepared. To have a full-time S&C coach was unheard of.
“When Cathal took over, they’d two All-Ireland in their history despite being to so many finals and semi-finals. He’s doubled that in five years (and won three Leagues) and built team after team. I know Niamh and a few others have stepped away but other girls have stepped away down through the years and he’s built a different team.
“He’s very fair and that’s his main strength I think. If you do well in the League, you’ll get your chance. If you’re doing well on the training pitch, you’ll get your chance. He was light years ahead of anything in camogie in the way he prepared his teams.
“When Cathal rang in January after they had lost the Covid final, he was so disappointed. I said ‘no chance’ first, because of the travel, my connection with Waterford, work and the lads at home as well. Cathal twisted my arm. He said, ‘If you come up, we’ll be unstoppable for the year.’
“You could be coaching teams all your life, and I have been since I was 14 and 15 at Cappoquin, and I may never have got a chance to get a team to Croke Park again. That was a huge draw. So I said we’d do everything we could to win an All-Ireland but it was only going to be for one year.
“Their hurling in the final was so razor sharp. It was our best performance of the year. Even though Cork came and led us mid-way through the second half. We won the game by three points but I thought we were full, full value for that. They peaked when it mattered.”
He would love to see Galway and Waterford make the final on August 6 but there would be no divided loyalties if that transpires.
“I’d have the blue and white hat on if that happened! Galway have plenty of them now… I’d love to see the Waterford girls get over the line and win the All-Ireland.
“They have definitely bridged the gap physically. They’ve got older. Annie Fitzgerald has come back. Abby Flynn wasn’t available to two years I was in. Whether it’s this year or not, I can see them winning one in the coming seasons but they won’t wanna wait.
“One thing’s for sure, we’re in for two cracking games.”