Eimear Ryan: We'll need to work harder to hang onto our multi-sport stars

Though the dual player has essentially been eliminated from men’s hurling and football, it’s still a relatively common occurrence in the women’s codes
Eimear Ryan: We'll need to work harder to hang onto our multi-sport stars

Aishling Moloney of Tipperary. Moloney made her championship debut for Tipp's camogie side in the win over Clare last week. After recent controversies in Limerick and Cork, can players in the women's codes make dual commitments work? Picture: Sportsfile

Aishling Moloney doesn’t do things by halves. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic and impactful inter-county debut for the young Tipperary player than her performance against Clare in the first round of the All-Ireland camogie championship last weekend. 

Moloney is, of course, one of Tipp’s star footballers, renowned for her probing runs and long-range kicking, but Sunday was the first time that her camogie skills were broadcast to a wide audience. Wearing number 27, she fired over three points from play — one phenomenal effort from her own 45 — and assisted in several others.

If that wasn’t headline-grabbing enough, she got a straight red at the second water break to top it all off.

The Camogie Association’s coverage of last weekend’s fixtures was of decent quality, but the livestream form has its limitations – just the one camera, brief blind spots when the ball goes behind a stanchion, and limited replays, to name a few.

The Tipp-Clare coverage didn’t capture Moloney’s off-the-ball sending-off offence, so you’re reduced to analysing body language in an attempt to figure out what happened. Referee Ray Kelly called over Moloney and mimed an alarming stabbing motion. Ah no, just a bit of a swipe, Aishling seemed to mime back. Unmoved, Kelly whipped out the red card.

Moloney’s debut reminded me of a sequence in the classic Simpsons episode ‘22 Short Films About Springfield’, in which Apu reluctantly leaves the Kwik-E-Mart for five minutes to attend a pool party. In a rush to get back to his shop, he manages to eat a hotdog, tear up the dancefloor, have a romantic encounter in a garden shed, and fall into the pool, all within the space of five minutes. Moloney similarly fit a season’s worth of thrills and spills into three-quarters of a match.

Aside from Moloney’s performance, there was much to enjoy from a Tipp perspective in their 0-20 to 1-8 victory over Clare. It was one of those belting, confident performances where points are going over from all angles, powered by sheer exuberance.

The players are clearly excited to be playing together again, and — since their first match was in the Ragg — there was an element of ‘not on our patch’ bravado to the performance. 

Roisin Howard’s fist pump after her point in the 11th minute reminded me of the stakes, of how long these players have waited for their championship, of how much this all means — particularly in 2020, when uncertainty hovers over everything.

Elsewhere, a supremely confident Cáit Devane was on fire, popping over a couple of her trademark over-the-shoulder points. Veteran defender Mary Ryan, in her 15th intercounty season, was rock solid at full-back, even bursting forward in the dying moments of the game to set up a Miriam Campion score. Orla O’Dwyer was hopping off the ground, her spring season with the Brisbane Lions clearly having done her good.

One has to imagine that the presence of multi-sport superstars such as O’Dwyer and Moloney will have a transformative effect on Tipperary camogie, and consequently on women’s Gaelic games as a whole.

As someone who has been a one-track sportsperson for most of my playing career, I find it fascinating what you can learn from teammates who play other sports to a high level. Soccer players are brilliant at anticipating and moving into space. Basketball players are masters of the short pass and the overlap.

Footballers love to run it; Moloney’s direct runs are pure football, and devastating in a camogie context.

Though the dual player has essentially been eliminated from men’s hurling and football, it’s still a relatively common occurrence in the women’s codes — not least in Cork, where there are five: Hannah Looney, Libby Coppinger, Meabh Cahalane, Fiona Keating, and Ciara McCarthy. 

This unique strand in camogie and ladies football is further complicated by the emergence of the AFLW, which in 2020 has 18 Irish players on its books. (Indeed, Moloney herself has turned down a couple of offers from Australian clubs, opting to finish out her degree in DCU before deciding whether to go semi-pro or not.) Some of the 18 are triple threats: O’Dwyer plays camogie and ladies football as well as AFLW; Sarah Rowe plays both ladies football and soccer. What knock-on effects will this injection of professionalism have on women’s GAA in the years to come?

Most of the players who have gone to Australia are extremely loyal to Gaelic games, saying in interviews that their inter-county teams remain their first love and first priority. 

The fact that the AFLW season takes place during our wintertime means that county players have so far been able to balance both. But another striking theme in the players’ reports of AFLW is their appreciation for the semi-pro setup, with top-class facilities shared equally with the men’s squads. Quite apart from being paid, the players are looked after exceptionally well.

How must it feel to come back from that environment to a sport where not even expenses are provided; where most players are out of pocket for committing to the games they love?

Off the field controversies

Both the Camogie Association and the LGFA have been embroiled in a striking run of player welfare controversies in recent months.

It began in Tipperary at the end of September, when Cahir ladies football and camogie teams were expected to play two county finals in the span of a weekend. Understandably, they made the difficult decision to withdraw from the camogie, handing Knockavilla a hollow victory. Moloney, Howard and AFLW star Aisling McCarthy were among the Cahir players impacted, and all were outspoken in their frustration.

Cork’s dual stars faced a direct fixture clash when both the camogie and ladies football teams were scheduled to play All-Ireland championship games on Saturday November 7. The clash has since been avoided, with the camogie match moved to the Sunday – but still, playing two championship games in the space of 24 hours is hardly ideal.

More recently, nine Limerick players left the inter-county camogie setup, again citing concerns over player welfare and a lack of support for dual players.

You might say that it’s 2020; that the curtailed calendar is working against us and that fixture clashes were inevitable. But this is a problem that crops up every year and there seems to be very little will at administrative level to solve it.

Worse, there’s an implicit lack of respect, a sense that the players will put up with impossible situations because of their love of the game. But increasingly those players have other options, and we can’t rely on their loyalty and goodwill indefinitely without giving any back. 

If we want to hang onto our multi-sport superstars, we have to give them a reason to stay.

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