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FEATURE: “When you’re a four- or five-year-old boy or girl, you’re dreaming of playing in Croke Park”

Sat 08th Jul

Daragh Ó Conchúir

County, Latest

Gender was never an issue for Aoife McGrath or her sister Eimear growing up in a family where hurleys, sliotars and footballs were as much a staple of their lives as shoes and socks.

During a conversation regularly punctuated by laughter, the description of the matches played when siblings and relatives got together elicits plenty of hearty chuckling.

“It’s all we’ve known,” says McGrath. “The whole family tree has just been immersed in it all my life and the lives before that. It’s what we do and what we’ve done for years. Any family gatherings usually involved a game of hurling out the back which were pretty intense and vicious at times! There was no inch given or taken.

“We love it. You make friends for life and it’s a really special thing to be involved in it. I’ve been immersed in it since I could walk. Being hauled along to matches and training, to stand on the sideline, hail, rain or snow or sun or whatever.

“We love it. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t so we’re so lucky to have so many family members to have been involved.”

A long-serving former Tipperary skipper and an All-Ireland winner at minor level with the county in 2011, McGrath (28) and her 21-year-old sister (photographed above by Marty Ryan Sportsfocus with their parents and siblings after Tipp’s Munster Championship success earlier this year) will be important cogs of Denis Kelly’s Premier squad taking on Antrim in today’s Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship quarter-final, which takes place at Croke Park today (3.30pm) as part of a double-header with the heavyweight hurling semi-final between Limerick and Galway.

Their first cousin, Miriam Campion was on the panel with them until last year. Other first cousins, all with All-Ireland medals at senior, U20/U21 and/or minor level include hurling legends John and Noel McGrath, their brother Brian, as well as Liam McGrath, Michelle Shortt and Campion’s two brother Pauric and John.

Clearly the DNA is powerful and in tandem with her environment, the socialisation that meant that life revolved entirely around the rhythm and beat of Gaelic games, it comes as no surprise that she relishes being involved in elite sport.

“When you’re a four- or five-year-old boy or girl, you’re dreaming of playing in Croke Park or Semple Stadium or Páirc Uí Chaoimh, for your county, wherever that is. You’re not dreaming about the hard slog, the training, or the running or the gym sessions or the eating and the sleeping. You’re dreaming of playing on those big stages.

“The hard work gets you there but being able to stand back and enjoy it, to enjoy the big test ahead at Croke Park against Antrim, those are the days it’s for. It’s important to work hard but definitely enjoy it because if you’re not enjoying it, it’s not really worth it.”

The accountant is an audit manager at Deloitte’s Limerick office and admits that it’s a “pretty stressful career” but one she enjoys. The stress of camogie offers a balance, though time management and discipline are required to combine the two. McGrath is particularly grateful to her employers for their support at this time of the year especially.

A run of seven consecutive seasons in the knockout stages came to an end last year, on score difference, despite only losing one game and defeating Cork. That was a “kick in the teeth” but they were without a number of important players for the campaign, not least the magnificent former All-Star and this year’s joint-captain, Karen Kennedy.

Now, there is a clean bill of health while a number of younger players have added energy to proceedings. That means they have a stronger depth to their squad than ever before and with Kelly stepping up to the vacancy left by Bill Mullaney, who had overseen significant progress, there is an element of freshness too.

Tipp have threatened a big breakthrough in recent years but in games like the 2021 All-Ireland semi-final, the League semi-final earlier that year, and League outings against Galway and Kilkenny in the last two seasons in which victory would have secured a place in the final, they have fallen narrowly, agonisingly short.

McGrath is giggling once more as the catalogue is reeled off.

“No, no, you’re right,” she says cackling with amusement at the mortified apologies that follow the list of what-might-have-beens. “It’s no secret we’ve been in tight games where we played really well and small things went against us. A couple of years ago against Galway in an All-Ireland semi-final, that was a game we probably had a real chance of winning and left behind us.

“And most recently in the League against Kilkenny. We had a chance of getting to a League final. All we needed to do was get the result. We were winning the game for most of it, kind of let Kilkenny back into it and I suppose their experience told on the day as well.

“That stung, especially after a good League campaign. To finish like that was disappointing but you have to learn all these things as well. And getting the result against Kilkenny last weekend – we didn’t win it, but we didn’t lose it and having lost a couple of tight games over the years, there definitely was a bit of relief and a bit of confidence coming from that, closing out a tight game against the All-Ireland champions in their backyard.”

It certainly felt important not to lose last Saturday, as they played so well for so much of proceedings and the prize – the target – from the draw was topping the group. It didn’t yield the direct route to a semi-final they coveted, however, leaving them to focus on recovery this week after such a physically and emotionally draining encounter.

But while there isn’t much recent history between Tipperary and Antrim, with the Saffrons only in their second season of senior camogie after a lengthy absence, McGrath knows all about the Ulster side’s scoring power, having played as Drom & Inch fell to Loughgiel Shamrocks in the All-Ireland club semi-final last December.

“Antrim are a team we don’t now a pile about. We haven’t come across them. I know they have quality players. We were unfortunate to come up against them in the club championship before Christmas, the likes of Róisín McCormick and Caitrin Dobbin. They’ve loads of good players. They’ve won two of their three matches so they’re there on merit and will pose a big challenge.”

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