'I won’t be scoring many goals now!' Dual star Ailish O’Reilly on camogie's trial rule changes

Ailish O’Reilly groans melodramatically at the mention of the rule changes that will be trialled in this season’s Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League.

Galway’s Ailish O’Reilly celebrates with her grandmother Mary O’Reilly and fans after the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final at Croke Park. Picture:INPHO/James Crombie
Galway’s Ailish O’Reilly celebrates with her grandmother Mary O’Reilly and fans after the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final at Croke Park. Picture:INPHO/James Crombie

“I won’t be scoring many goals now without the hand pass” comes the exaggerated sad song.

It isn’t true of course, as her brace in Galway’s Liberty Insurance All-Ireland senior final defeat of Kilkenny illustrated.

It will take getting used to but O’Reilly accepts it as a progression, as she does all the proposals.

“I will learn when I get frees out against me because I am going to drop the hurl by force of habit! The Cork girls do it an awful lot, they use it so well, the drop and the hand pass. It is going to be a massive change for them but it will for everyone. Everybody uses it, it is the most accurate pass.

“(But) you ask 100 girls who want to get rid of it, probably 99 of them will say ‘yeah’. So it is a step in the right direction with the trials.

“The quick puck outs and frees are about speeding it up and that’s good. The refs will need to be alert.

But I don’t know what the ‘minimal force’ means. I just hope that means a bit of contact anyway. Strength and conditioning is getting way better and we are getting way stronger. That was the main one everyone wanted to change. If they couldn’t enforce that properly it would be a bit disappointing.

“There was an improvement definitely in the way games were let go (last year) by the referees without any rule change. If it goes up another level again it will be great for us.”

O’Reilly, who has just turned 26, has been one of the game’s premier attackers since announcing herself as her debut season ended with Galway ending a 17-year All-Ireland famine in 2013 but she is almost as highly regarded in basketball, and only missed out on an Ireland trial as it clashed with the opening round of the Championship against Kilkenny last June.

You can see the influence in her game. Take the movement for the first of her All-Ireland goals. It looked simple and it was instinctive for the Oranmore/Maree goal machine.

We have all seen similar opportunities butchered, however, because the forward was drawn by the lure of the posts into traffic or was not on the half-turn receiving possession. Split-seconds make all the difference in this rarefied atmosphere.

As Niamh Kilkenny weaved through despairing Kilkenny tackles, O’Reilly ran to the space on the right-hand side, away from the defensive cover, never taking her eyes off her teammate but her body always facing the target.

The pass is perfect but because of the cleverness of O’Reilly’s movement and body shape, no adjustment is required. And when you’re so hungry for goals as the four-time All-Star is, there was only going to be one result.

Roof of the net.

Later on, her footwork while driving forward caused consternation in the Kilkenny defence, leading to a goal for clubmate Niamh Hanniffy. Within minutes, she was racing through for her second major.

There were other key contributors of course but these three plays were fundamental to the triumph. That is what being an elite inside forward is about. You might be on the ball less than a minute in total. You have to make every second count.

Galway are All-Ireland champions because Ailish O’Reilly made her touches count.

Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

“I’ll definitely never forget the two goals but that was one thing that (manager) Cathal (Murray) drilled into us since November (2018). We didn’t care who was scoring as long as we were winning. You could take the semi-final against Cork. I didn’t really get near much of it. It was the same against Waterford (in the quarter-final) until the last 10 minutes. You just have to be patient. Other years we would have crumbled or thrown a huff but that didn’t happen with anyone this year, which was a massive change for the team. We didn’t really care who was scoring.

“Being in the full-forward line can be the most frustrating position ever. You have to be patient. I have always been full-forward or corner-forward unfortunately. There are times you’d prefer to be further out but if you get the two touches and get two scores, it’s worth it.”

The instinct to turn and head for goal as her first choice has always been there but she has no doubts basketball has helped her in a number of ways. An All-Ireland winner at U16 schools level with Calasanctius almost nine years ago to the day, the former underage international now calls the plays as point guard for NUIG Mystics in Division 1 of the National League, having previously lined out with Maree, and added a second Basketball Ireland All-Star to her personal honours list last April.

Without it, I wouldn’t be doing any cardio during the winter. I find a basketball game much harder than a camogie game because I would be touching the ball for the whole 40 minutes rather than one touch in 60 minutes. It is literally up and down and no stoppages.

“We have seen the impact basketball has now in GAA with screening and the likes. One or two of my basketball coaches have been in with inter-county teams in the last year or two. It has gone way more popular with football especially. It hasn’t come into camogie so much, it is more off the ball movement and the footwork.”

With the League due to begin at the end of the month, the focus has returned to camogie now. That will always be the priority, as evidenced by her call to miss out on national trials in favour of the championship tie with Kilkenny.

As it was, Galway lost to a side motivated by having to give best to the Tribeswomen in the League decider at the end of March and that had no negative impact on where the O’Duffy Cup resides now.

There are no regrets however although O’Reilly concedes just the slightest niggle. How would she stack up among the very best?

“A part of you would have just loved to see what way it would have turned out. My basketball coach (Terry Kennedy of Ballina fame), I get on extremely well with him, and he was saying ‘Go for one trial and see.’ I would have liked to see how I fared out. I might never even have got close. But obviously I was never going to miss the camogie. If they were on different days I’d have gone, just to see what’s the craic. I have no idea how I’d have fared.”

She returned to the hectic basketball schedule at the end of September, allowing for some All-Ireland celebrations. She missed out on those six years previously, having departed for Valladolid in Spain on an Erasmus a week after their win. There was no way she was going to cut the partying short this time, particularly given all that group had gone through in the intervening six years.

There has been a plethora of near-misses in finals and semi-finals, a point or two here or there but always on the wrong side of it, Cork and Kilkenny inflicting the damage.

People said they were lacking in physical and mental fortitude. Then, as the managers fell by the wayside following the end of Tony Ward’s second spell in 2015, the speculation was that they might be hastier to point fingers than look in the mirror. When Cathal Murray replaced Tony O’Donovan after the 2018 League, he was the fifth manager in four seasons.

O’Reilly keeps a neutral line, out of respect to all parties, but emphasises the professionalism of the current set-up and the complete support of the county board.

“No one ever really knew the true story about everything only ourselves. I am sure we looked like an absolute group of girls that didn’t want anyone. What happened happened. But a lot of it wasn’t down to us either. Everything seemed to click into place for us this year finally. It makes it that bit easier with Galway every year knowing that we are there or thereabouts. We were all in it this year as one. I honestly don’t know, something just clicked and I couldn’t put a finger on it. But whatever it was it worked.”

O’Reilly is a primary school teacher currently on the lookout for a permanent posting but it will have to be in Galway, at least as long as she is an inter-county player. If that doesn’t materialise, she will continue to sub. Nothing can get in the way of the ultimate target. When you operate at high-performance level, it is a lifestyle, and the choices you make are with that in mind.

Ailish O’Reilly is perfectly fine with that.

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