White relives fairytale finale

This year’s All-Ireland camogie final, in which Julia White played a game-changing cameo, had the quality of an inspirational sports movie.

White relives fairytale finale

First there was Gemma O’Connor’s immense equaliser, made all the more impressive by the fact that she’d been nursing a knee injury since the throw-in.

Then White, another veteran coming back from injury, lanced over a winner. Like Joe Canning’s last-minute point against Tipp the previous month, White scored with three opposing players bearing down on her. On TV at least, it didn’t look like there was room to swing a pencil, much less a hurley.

It secured a one-point victory for Cork. “It’s the worst way to lose but definitely it’s a nice way to win,” White says, smiling.

Nicer still, one imagines, is to be the player who scores that crucial point. But with

refreshing honesty, White says that she entered the All-Ireland fray in a spirit of frustration. “I really wanted to play. I was disappointed I didn’t come on earlier. I was nearly kind of angry coming onto the pitch.”

It’s hard to quench that desire to start, even if — recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and a broken foot — she knew it was a long shot.

“I wasn’t expecting to start but I still wanted to, though I don’t think I would have lasted 60 minutes, in hindsight. At the time, though, you want to play. Having been there before… it’s hard to see where you’ve fallen from.” She laughs. “Maybe it’s just ego.”

In 2015, White was at the top of her game: the winner of four All-Ireland medals, two of them as a crucial forward in 2014 and 2015. Professionally, things were going well too: having just graduated from UL, she got a job teaching PE at Loreto Kilkenny, an “unbelievable camogie school”.

That winter, with camogie over for the year, she joined a seven-a-side soccer team alongside Kilkenny players Ann Dalton and Denise Gaule, who she’s friendly with. One Saturday, playing for fun on the astro, she ruptured her Achilles. “That was nearly the worst part, that it wasn’t even in a camogie match,” she says ruefully.

It was an unusual

injury for a woman her age: 80% of Achilles injuries happen to men, and the chances of it happening below the age of 40 are minimal. The operation, however, was straightforward and White initially hoped to be back in about six months, in time to play some part in the 2016 championship. It turned out to be a much slower, more arduous process.

‘I went to [physiotherapist] Declan O’Sullivan and he told me that he got Dónal Óg Cusack back from the same injury in six months, but he was seeing Dónal Óg twice a day, seven days a week. He was very honest and told me, ‘you can’t afford that with the resources ye have.’ He advised me to rule out 2016 so I took that on board. I felt at the time that if I’d been an inter-county hurler there might have been the resources to come back sooner.”

On top of having to sit out the season, one of the psychological fallouts was that she had to radically rethink her own game. She was warned that, since the surgery would shorten her tendon, she might lose a yard or two of pace.

“I think I lost a bit more than that,” she laughs. “That was the hardest to deal with because speed would have been my main attribute. Last Christmas we came back to the track in UCC for a session and I got a serious fright. I was the slowest when I would have always been among the fastest. Most of the year I struggled with that, to accept it mentally.”

She admits that, despite its incredible denouement, 2017 was difficult for her — not least because of a second injury early in the year that derailed her recovery. “I was really close to giving up a good few times last year. When I fractured my foot I was like ‘for God’s sake’. That was the other foot as well, so then I had two things to worry about.”

It wasn’t until early August that she was back fully fit.

After a long absence, it took her a moment to adjust to the final’s frantic pace. “I came on in the semi-final around the same time and I nearly died. That brought me back down to earth. I worried I was never ever going to reach that level again. It was the same feeling for a minute when I went on — it was so fast, up and down.”

Scoring was the last thing on her mind. “My attitude was more, ‘don’t let them score’, because we’d only just drawn level.”

The point itself — her first touch in the game — is mostly a blur to her. “I do remember watching it going over ‘cause I never score. I’d be more a passer or creator.”

She credits her ability to get in the shot to the fact that she’s a ciotóg, and also that she struck the ball from underneath rather than straight on. “I have an unorthodox swing.”

If she makes the score sound easy, White admits that mentally, the 2017 final was a difficult one for her. “The hardest part was sitting from four o’clock until I came on. Just trying to be patient and not get annoyed, not lose focus. I never really get nerves, so the main thing for me mentally is to stay patient. Next ball, next play, whatever happens, just let it go.”

It’s an attitude White has developed over a long career of ups and downs: All-Ireland glory alternated with devastating injuries. Though just 26, the Cork team has been part of her life for a decade.

“I was 16 when I first came on and then I was 17 when I won my first All-Ireland medal. I couldn’t even talk to people I was so shy. They were coming off a string of All-Irelands. You had Mary O’Connor, Sarah Hayes, Jenny Duffy, Sile Burns, Emer Dillon, Caithriona Foley. Loads of superstars.”

She won All-Ireland medals as a sub in 2008 and 2009, but had to employ that aforementioned patience in order to break into the starting 15. She nailed down a place in the forwards in 2010, the year of her Leaving Cert, but it was a while before Cork would be back in Croke Park. “That was the end of it until 2012. You think when you’re there you’re gonna be there every year.”

I

n 2011, they were knocked out in the semi-final, which conversely had a positive effect on her club’s efforts. “Douglas is such a big club, with so many Cork players, that we tend to do better when Cork get knocked out of the championship early, because there’d be more at training.”

Douglas won the county title and a result, 20-year-old White was named Cork captain for 2012. The year started promisingly, with Cork winning the league. Then her year was upended. “I got glandular fever. We got to the final that year but I missed the quarter-final, semi-final and final. I found it hard being captain as well. I was so young and I was shy enough still, and there were so many amazing leaders on the team. They helped me a lot, but I didn’t like being captain when all the attention is on you and then you’re not even playing.”

She feels they left it behind them in 2013, when they lost the semi-final to Kilkenny. They got a chance for revenge the following year, when they faced the Cats again in the final. Though seven points down at one stage, Cork pulled off a stunning win. “That was my fourth time going to Croke Park but the first time I actually got to play. We were seven points down, and I was a bit out of it. At half-time, I had a moment going back out onto the pitch of ‘this is what I’ve always wanted, cop on’.”

Her second All-Ireland as a player came in 2015, when they beat Galway despite a flurry of high-profile retirements. “There was no master plan. We just had a load of young ones who came through and stepped up.” She credits the older players, in particular Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery, with steadying the ship. “The leaders. There’s no denying or even quantifying what they bring to it.”

She’s self-deprecating when asked about her own achievements. With five All-Ireland medals so far, is there one that’s particularly special?

“2008 and 2009 I don’t even really count because I wasn’t playing. Maybe that’s silly,

because I know some people would kill for an All-Ireland medal, but I wouldn’t really rank those ones.

“I’ve only scored two points in Croke Park out of three appearances. I got one point in 2014. I didn’t score at all in 2015, but I was really happy with my performance. This year it was great to come on and to make a difference and to win. It was definitely worth it, but the year overall was the toughest ever. I think if we hadn’t won, and I hadn’t got that point … I don’t know. It’s still a bit bittersweet.”

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