by Daragh Ó Conchúir
THEY may have been tired as they landed at Dublin Airport on Saturday after an early start in Madrid, but unlike the EU shenanigans, there was no difficulty in reaching a consensus from the disparate group of 43 forming the inaugural Liberty Insurance Camogie All-Stars Touring Party.
This was an unqualified success. Of course, as the new-age coaches like to say now, there will be a few work-ons next time around, the goal in providing another layer of parity for Camogie players had been achieved. And the significance of that was not lost on anyone.
The organisation between the Camogie Association, Liberty Insurance and Madrid Harps GAA was splendid, the match between the 2017 and 2016 All-Stars proved an exhibition of the finest skills of the game, and a link was established with the Irish of the Spanish capital, not just via the Harps, but with the first hosting of a Gaelic Games group by an Irish ambassador.
Tuesday, December 28th
Injury and previous commitments meant there were some enforced absentees, and a few All-Star nominees stepped into the fray. Thankfully Gemma O’Connor, who won a record-breaking 10th All-Stars Award last month, did make the trip despite being unable to play having aggravated the knee injury that placed her participation for Cork in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final in doubt right up to the 11th hour.
Twenty eight players from eight counties arrived at the Maldron Hotel on Tuesday night in preparation for a 4am wake-up call the following morning.
They were addressed by the President of the Camogie Association Catherine Neary, who told them that the purpose of the trip “is to honour the elite players who are on top of their game, the players everyone looks up to.”
Director of Personal Lines at Liberty Insurance, Deirdre Ashe impressed on the players that they were role models for young women by virtue of their actions on and off the field and reaffirmed Liberty’s continuing proactive approach to bringing Camogie to a wider audience: “Liberty Insurance is committed to raising the profile and awareness of women in sport” Ashe declared. “That’s why it’s a privilege for us to sponsor the first ever Liberty Insurance Camogie All-Stars Tour.”
There to present the two squads with their jerseys was former Ireland rugby captain and icon of women’s sport, Fiona Coghlan. Coghlan will always be remembered as skipper of the team that won the Six Nations for the first time in 2013, topping it off with a Grand Slam.
The following year, they caused a huge shock to everyone but themselves when beating New Zealand in the World Cup, in which they finished fourth. Coghlan called time on her career at the conclusion of that tournament, having accumulated 85 caps in 13 years.
Ironically, Coghlan – who played Camogie for Clontarf – earned the first of those 85 caps against Spain in Madrid and recalled the excitement of getting her jersey the night before.
She said that while the profile and treatment of women in sport was not where it needed to be yet, “it’s going in the right direction.” She noted Liberty’s role in this regard, describing them as more than sponsors but “huge supporters”.
“You just have to keep pushing” Coghlan told Liberty Insurance Head of Corporate Communications, John Coffey. “It’s things like Joy Neville being named World Rugby Referee of the Year, it’s things like this Tour that break the glass ceiling. It’s a pity the glass ceiling is there but we just have to keep going.
“There’s only one first” she added finally of this historic voyage while addressing the players directly. “So enjoy it and well done.”
Wednesday, November 29th
The following day, the group landed in Madrid and were shuttled directly to the offices of Liberty Seguros, the Spanish headquarters of the Liberty Group. The welcome was warm and the quizzical staff were given a quick video presentation demonstrating the skills and bravery of Camogie players.
CEO of Liberty Seguros, Tom McIlduff spoke, as did Neary and Ashe, with the latter again hammering home the message of seeking equality in reward and profile to Camogie players compared to their male counterparts.
After the formalities, players and staff mingled as they walked to the nearby Juan Carlos I Park, the main municipal park of this beautiful city overlooking the Barajas on one side and Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on the other.
The sun shone as first, the players demonstrated some of the skills of the game and then the natives joined in. It was clear that some had a natural aptitude for striking the sliotar, albeit often one-handed, with plenty of tennis techniques in particular in evidence! The onlooking Madrid Harps contingent might have been considering returning for a recruitment drive.
Meanwhile, bemused passers-by stopped to ask “What game is this?”
That evening, the party made that much-anticipated trip to the residence of Irish Ambassador, Síle Maguire. The resonance of the reception was not lost on the players and when the clearly-enthused Ambassador revealed that they were the first party from the Gaelic Games family to be hosted in the Irish Embassy, many necks whipped around to look at colleagues, mouths agape. It was lovely to see. And a genuine honour to be a part of.
Thursday, November 30th
A trip to the Bernabeau Stadium, the home of Real Madrid filled the afternoon. The silverware on display was staggering but it said much that many of the players considered the dressing room facilities superior in Croke Park.
Then it was time for the game between the Liberty Insurance 2017 All-Stars selection and the Liberty Seguros 2016 side. An 11-a-side affair with rolling subs played on astroturf at XV Hortaleza Rugby Club, it was always going to be fast.
And though there were no points or trophies on offer, bragging rights have value too. Paudie Murray, who is current Manager of the Year, was in charge of the 2017 squad, and his predecessor, Ann Downey, who oversaw the efforts of the 2016 panel. They are proven winners as bosses of the last two Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Championship, Cork and Kilkenny. They were always going to demand a high standard in terms of effort at least.
That was evident even in the final moments, when with the 2016 crew well on the way to a 10-13 to 7-8 victory, Downey was still issuing demands for further effort.
Kate Kelly had announced her retirement prior to the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Championship and ended up being part of Wexford’s backroom staff. She made this historic Tour as part of the 2016 team, having earned a ninth All-Stars Award as wide-margin leading scorer in that year’s Championship.
She looked like she had never missed an intercounty training block, even having suffered a broken arm and thumb in action with her club St Ibar’s Shelmaliers at the end of Spring that ruled her out of any sort of action for most of the summer. Yet she was as lithe and athletic looking as throughout her 20 years with Wexford. The touch was still prodigious and she illustrated once more that Joe Canning was not the first to deliver a hand-pass out of the back of the hand either!
Orla Cotter was a creator supreme, sitting in the pocket and finding runners with perfectly-weighted passes, as well as finding the target from frees and play, while Chloe Morey enjoyed the big stage, repeating what she has been doing for Clare with years, and landing a hat-trick of goals early on. Sarah Dervan was typically aggressive in defence.
Meanwhile, Aoife Murray provided one of the individual highlights of the evening with a full-length save from a Cotter penalty, having stood to one side of the goal and dared her Rebel teammate to aim for the significant gap. It is normally Murray who takes the penalties for Cork, and there are usually three people standing on the line. Cotter took up the challenge and drilled a shot to the space. “The Cat” Murray was already flinging herself to her left however and the sliotar was diverted away. The ribbing continued, just as the play did.
There were numerous others who shone. All the skills were there, the flicks, reverse passes, fancy lifts, sumptuous control, high fielding and courage – it was almost funny to see the look of horror on the local physio’s face as players nonchalantly looked for wipes to clear away the numerous bloody knees and one bloody nose. He hadn’t expected this, one suspects.
The standout performance came from Anne Dalton however. As a Man United supporter, Dalton appreciates the achievements of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid but she is in thrall to Barcelona, and so Leo Messi is her idol. Playing in a more advanced role than we have seen for many years, she caused havoc in the 2017 defence.
Whatever deal she struck with her Kilkenny manager Downey to have the shackles released a little on this special occasion, it is unlikely to see her removed from her quarterback role with the Noresiders next year. It was a tantalising reminder however of how complete a hurler the five-time All-Star is. The Kilkenny Messi.
All the while, Owen Elliott refereed in his normal unfussy style, allowing the players to get on with showing their wares.
The journalists interviewing the players afterwards for Spain’s biggest sports newspaper, Marca, were in awe.
Friday, December 1st
Friday was about checking out the various Madrid attractions.
After breakfast, Neary spoke of needing to get the first Liberty Insurance Camogie All-Stars Tour done, to make it normal, because it was what the players deserved.
“It was something everybody would have been aware of for a number of years that we wanted to do as an organisation” said the Camogie Association President. “Certainly from my point of view, it’s all about the game and if it’s all about the game it’s all about the players as well. So it’s another step up that ladder to show we have a fantastic game and players that put so much of their life into our game.
“This is another small way to acknowledge that. It’s important to get it done and that we continue on and learn from it as it goes on. There is no downside to something like this. It’s about bringing the game out there, not hiding it.
“We looked at continuing the growth of the game. Certainly, the Liberty Insurance Camogie All-Stars Tour is part of that.
“You want to have your major players as household names and have young girls looking up to Gemma O’Connor and Anne Dalton, the way it is with the hurlers and footballers. Liberty Insurance have been very good throughout their sponsorship of our Championships and the All-Stars in helping that happen.”
Saturday, December 2nd
Back in Dublin, the history-makers dispersed, exhausted but content. Driving down the motorway, this observer recalled the obvious delight on the face of the 37-year-old Kelly, as she looked at her jersey. Camogie has made remarkable strides since she first played at Senior level in 1996.
“It’s great for players going forward that you get the All-Star and there’s something like this at the end of it as a reward” said one of the game’s true legends on the previous Wednesday. “I’m absolutely thrilled to get on the first trip.
“I think it’s a huge step forward. It’s huge even for kids looking up to their role models going on an All-Stars trip. It’s progressive, rewarding the top players in the Association. It’s exceptional. It’s just another way to show it’s something worth aspiring to, to be an intercounty player, and that the rewards are another bit closer to how it is with the men.
“It’s great too to mix with people that you’d know only as enemies and foes on the field and get away in different circumstances and have a bit of craic with them, and to play with them and get to know them better. That’s good, to be starting that community within Camogie.
“Back a good while ago they did the Rest of Ireland team. That kind of fell away and then the All-Stars came about and that was a huge progressive step. The Tour being added on gives more to that accolade.
“You can see the huge strides that have been made in the last five years – even in two to three years – in every aspect of ladies’ games, including the social media aspect. I’d like to think that in five years’ time we’ll have made huge strides. You’ll probably have leapfrogged what’s been done in the last 50 years – well you’d like to think that and that’s what you need to see happening.”
2017 All-Stars Squad: Aoife Murray (Cork), Tara Kenny (Galway), Catherine Foley (Kilkenny), Laura Treacy (Cork), Gemma O’Connor (Cork), Máire McGrath (Clare), Eimear O’Sullivan (Cork), Meighan Farrell (Kilkenny), Ashling Thompson (Cork), Chloe Morey (Clare), Katie Power (Kilkenny), Amy O’Connor (Cork), Ailish O’Reilly (Galway), Aisling Maher (Dublin), Aoife Donohue (Galway)
Manager: Paudie Murray (Cork)
2016 All-Stars Squad: Emma Kavanagh (Kilkenny), Sarah O’Connor (Wexford), Sarah Dervan (Galway), Collette Dormer (Kilkenny), Rebecca Hennelly (Galway), Anne Dalton (Kilkenny), Miriam Walsh (Kilkenny), Orla Cotter (Cork), Michaela Morkan (Offaly), Shelley Kehoe (Wexford), Denise Gaule (Kilkenny), Niamh Mulcahy (Limerick), Kate Kelly (Wexford)
Manager: Ann Downey (Kilkenny)