By Daragh Ó Conchúir
The lifestyle of a high-performance sportsperson dictates that you grasp the chance for an away day whenever and wherever you can. This is particularly true of Gaelic games county players, most of whom must combine that level of conditioning, preparation and playing with an actual paying profession or studies.
So it was that Cork’s Saoirse McCarthy took advantage of the fortnight break between the last round of the Very Camogie League Division 1A group stages and tomorrow’s final against Galway (1.50pm throw-in, live on RTÉ2), as well as the Easter mid-term ahead of her fourth and final year sport and lifestyle management exams at MTU, to jump in the car and take a quick spin to Waterford city for a night away with her mother last week.
She still manages to fit in this conversation from their hotel room, with Cella “rolling her eyes at me,” before heading out to browse through the shops and go for something to eat.
It is a welcome insertion of balance into her schedule but that is not to imply that McCarthy is desperate to escape. Far from it, but it is just another element of the overall package.
Initially, the Courcey Rovers star struggled to really establish herself at senior level in the attacking role she favoured and in which she had wowed mentors and supporters alike through the grades with Cork. In 2018, she completed a sensational All-Ireland treble as part of the last squad to win a senior title, having relished Croke Park’s open spaces in the intermediate final and pocketed a minor memento earlier in the year.
At the beginning of 2021, Paudie Murray came up with a left-field suggestion that she wasn’t enamoured with at all. But the switch to wing-back heralded an acceleration of performance levels that finally allowed McCarthy to display her outstanding skills and athleticism to a wider audience.
Though it looked like the transition was seamless, she had to learn a lot of skills, particularly the unsexy ones without the ball she might not have excelled at previously. The result, though, is that she has been among Rebels’ best players since, earning All-Star nominations at the end of both campaigns and collecting her first gong for her displays as Cork reached both All-Ireland and League finals.
Now, with Ashling Thompson recovering from a cruciate knee ligament injury, Murray’s successor as Cork boss, Matthew Twomey has placed further responsibility upon McCarthy, pushing her into midfield alongside the other hitherto half-back, Laura Hayes.
Given what a revelation she was in her previous role, it came as no surprise how well she has done as a dynamic force, even as Cork suffered their first defeat at the hands of tomorrow’s rivals in that concluding group game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, when they had already qualified and Galway needed to win to make the decider.
“The first couple of games, you could feel it afterwards, I felt drained,” McCarthy admits. “I’m getting used to it now, managing not running around like a headless chicken really. When you’re used to a structure in a position like wing-back, you can run to a certain degree but at the same time you have to mark your player and if she’s not moving that much, you’re probably not moving that much. Whereas at midfield, you make your own game. You have to keep moving, keep looking for the ball, play yourself into the game.
“And it’s the girls getting used to you in the position as well, like (centre-back) Laura Treacy when she’s looking up. She’s used to me being on her left rather than in front of her. It’s all a matter of getting used to it but I would like to stay there though.”
Which isn’t what she was saying straight out the bat about her first positional switch. Yet, as well as bringing her obvious talents to the fore, that move gave her new tools that have improved her considerably as a player.
“When you’re playing corner-forward with Cork all along, it’s a big change but I was more excited to be on the pitch than actually worrying about where I was playing. It was more of a mindset change. You have to be switched on all the time and that was the hardest thing. Sometimes you could switch off, look up the pitch or what have you, but you always have to have your player in mind. That was the mindset change going from a forward to a back and that was the hardest bit.
“Defensively, skill-wise, I have improved an awful lot from playing half-back. Learning to be on the shoulder or to stand someone up when they’re coming through. They’re valuable skills and I mightn’t have learned them if I didn’t move positions.”
Along with Hayes and Clíona Healy, her colleagues from that minor class of 2018, McCarthy is now part of a new group of leaders, suddenly in her sixth season at this level.
“Anyone on the pitch has a sense of leadership anyway. I don’t care if it’s a 19-year-old or someone who has All-Stars but we have that kind of environment in our dressing room. That no one is above anyone. Now saying that, when I was younger, I was nervous about speaking out but now we can definitely take on more of a leadership role on the pitch.
“My first year on the team, Aoife Murray was the captain and the first game, she came straight over to us and sat next to us in the dressing room. Couldn’t have been nicer, more supportive and she said, ‘Just go out and enjoy the game.’ There was never any pressure on us when we were younger and we’ve brought that forward now and we’re the same with the girls coming through.
“At the end of the day, we want to win. So if there’s a good 19-year-old coming through, you’re going to want to be nice to them so they play the best they can. No matter what the age or experience, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
So she is happy to provide guidance and reassurance to the likes of Orlaith Cahalane and the latest crop of products from the Cork conveyor belt.
Tomorrow, there’s a chance to secure a first major triumph for Cork since the 2018 All-Ireland final. But even despite losing the last three national finals, McCarthy is focusing on the bigger picture. That applies too to a quick rematch with Galway and the prospect of another game between the sides to start the championship. That will bear no relevance on tomorrow, she insists.
“We take every game as it comes and focus on ourselves, getting our performance and game play right, and let the results take care of themselves. When you’re playing Kilkenny and Galway it’s always going to be a close game. We do know each other from playing in big matches, semi-finals and finals.
“I think the last day down in The Park, we were disappointed because we wanted to come away with the win but we’re looking forward to the League final. It’s another day, another chance to play in Croke Park against one of the bigger teams.”