By Daragh Ó Conchúir
RETIRED Wexford legend Kate Kelly has welcomed a final opportunity to be part of history, as a member of the inaugural Liberty Insurance Camogie All-Stars Tour to Madrid.
Kelly announced her decision in the spring to call time on a career that yielded four All-Irelands, nine All-Stars and a mammoth 27-315 in 88 Championship games for the Yellowbellies between her debut in 1996 and her last outing in an extra-time defeat by Cork in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Semi-Final 20 years later.
She earned the last of what was a then record-equalling nine All-Stars in her final campaign and that earned her an invite to participate in the maiden Tour, the centrepiece of which will be an exhibition game between the 2017 and 2016 All-Star selections.
“It’s brilliant, considering I retired and I think I just got in by the skin of my teeth!” she laughed in the sunshine after participating in skills display for the staff of Liberty Seguros at the Parque de Juan Carlos I that caught the attention of a number of bemused passers-by.
“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. 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-Star 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 inter-county 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.”
The progress in terms of profile, welfare and parity of esteem for Camogie and women’s sport is unrecognisable since Kelly first played at Senior level. There is a considerable journey to make yet but the 37-year-old is confident that progress will continue.
“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.”
What about Gemma O’Connor separating herself at the top of the All-Star roll of honour with her 10th award?
“Yeah, I’m coming back next year!” comes the quick response, complete with wide grin.
“Ah no, I’m delighted with what I have. I’m thrilled. I’m delighted for her, she had a great year and a great All-Ireland to come and play given she’d an injury. You’d always have the fear going out on the field, playing with an impediment, you’d have that fear of being taken to the cleaners. It was brilliant to score that point at the end to level it. So no, I don’t mind.”
Kelly’s brother John was joint manager of the Wexford squad that got to this year’s Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Quarter-Final and he was quick to persuade her to retain a presence around the camp. Teenager Chloe Foxe is one of the younger contingent that trumpeted the benefits of having such nous in the dressing room.
Management and coaching is definitely in her future – indeed it is in her present with her club St Ibar’s Shelmaliers Minors – but it will never get compare with playing
“I enjoyed being back around the girls and working with them in a different capacity. I didn’t enjoy the fact that I couldn’t help them (on the pitch) or do anything. The fact that I broke my wrist and thumb the week before they played the first match made it a little easier. If I had’ve been training I would have been kicking myself that I couldn’t’ play!
“But I really enjoyed working with the team but it is different. You’re not inside. As much as you think it might be the same as playing, it’s not.
She will be lining out in today’s exhibition at XV Hortaleza Rugby Club (5.30pm Irish time) however.
“I might be a little rusty” she warned smiling, “but I’m really looking forward to it.”