Kieran Shannon: Groundbreaking Cora Staunton is truly an Irish sporting giant

Cora has changed the game in more way than one. And what’s more, she isn’t finished playing or changing it
Kieran Shannon: Groundbreaking Cora Staunton is truly an Irish sporting giant

Cora Staunton of the GWS Giants. Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

The trouble with — or for — someone as regularly ground-breaking and amazing as Cora Staunton is that we can cease to appreciate just how ground-breaking and amazing they are.

Like a superhero, their latest trick or feat can be merely greeted by a faint fair play or a collective shrug. A bit like Superman again stopping a bullet or saving a schoolbus falling off a bridge, we take their latest accolade or scoring return for granted: Sure that’s what they do. When there’s nothing new in it, what’s news about it?

This latest achievement of Staunton’s though is something that we should pause and marvel at that bit more.

Last week she was selected on the AFLW’s team of the year.

At 39 years of age.

Having only taken up the sport three years ago.

Having come back from a quadruple leg break she sustained less than two years ago.

There is of course a case that Staunton isn’t even the biggest Irish story in the AFLW at the moment.

Staunton’s team didn’t make the league’s playoffs. Last weekend six of the 14 Irish players registered with AFLW teams played in the league’s semi-finals, with Orla O’Dwyer of Tipperary and the Brisbane Lions winning through to this weekend’s Grand final.

But O’Dwyer and those players will be the first to admit they wouldn’t even be in Australia — let alone have made it that far — only for Staunton. She was the first to go Down Under, blazing the trail for them to follow. They too are her story, her achievement, her legacy.

Again, it’s only by taking a few steps back, like revisiting Staunton’s aptly-titled autobiography, Game Changer, that we can truly grasp how astonishing and exceptional an adventure and athlete this is.

At the time she was approached by Nicholas Walsh and the Greater Western Sydney Giants, Staunton was already in the 23rd year of her senior inter-county football career and struggling with a back injury. No international player had ever played in the AFLW. And because she could only be drafted if she first tried out with the Giants, she’d to keep her potential move a secret to even her family during the height of a championship summer which would culminate in her helping Mayo back to another All-Ireland final.

And yet, as she’d write in her book, “the draw of a new challenge had me hooked”.

Cora Staunton and Pepa Randall of the GWS Giants celebrate victory over the West Coast Eagles. Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images
Cora Staunton and Pepa Randall of the GWS Giants celebrate victory over the West Coast Eagles. Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

To help her get used to the bounce of an oval ball, she’d wait until the evening sun would dip in the west and head for her local pitch in Clogher when about the only other person she was likely to encounter was another local dedicated to the craft of kicking a ball: Cillian O’Connor. From the boot of her car she’d yank out a bag full of O’Neill’s with the oval Sherrin ball buried inside. Bit by bit, that foreign object became her friend.

After Staunton eventually went to try out in Australia — in between losing that All-Ireland with Mayo and winning another with Carnacon — she was the third-last and the second-oldest of the 49 players in that draft. She’d to learn practically a new sport and a new language: “The terminology was hard to grasp.”

The training was “tough and the heat was a killer” and she’d to adjust to a new dressing room. Some players she found to be very welcoming; others, less so. “I got the vibe some of them weren’t happy I was there.”

As she’d put it: “I was bottom of the pile” for a team the previous season which had finished bottom of the league, winning only of their games.

But yet all that didn’t deter or daunt her. The way she saw it: “Everything was so professional I had no reason not to excel. I sensed that I was getting better with every kick. My visa didn’t permit to work elsewhere but that helped. I was able to swing by the club every day, grab a few bags of balls and practise.”

By the end of that 2018 season, the Giants were only one game away from reaching the Grand final, only for Staunton to miss it through tearing a medial ligament.

A year later then she had that quadruple leg break. At 38 almost anyone else would have left it at that: What a run. But instead she wanted to run some more. By first literally learning to walk again. And then jump. To the point she’s still scaling new heights.

 Cora Staunton of the Giants kicks a goal against the West Coast Eagles. Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images
Cora Staunton of the Giants kicks a goal against the West Coast Eagles. Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Last month when she kicked three of the Giants’ seven goals in a narrow win over St Kilda, her team coach Alan McConnell proclaimed how he was “in awe of how she prepares and plays”.

She’d finish the regular season among the nine leading scorers in the league and named on that AFWL select side. While it’s not quite the All-Stars that we’d have here — the Best and Fairest, which has yet to be picked for 2021, is the more prestigious individual award scheme there — it’d still be the equivalent of making the Sunday Game team of the year.

Four years ago that would have been unimaginable, for Staunton or any other Irish player.

Just as it would have been for an Irish female GAA player to have their own autobiography published and win Sports Book of the Year.

Over the next 18 months another leading female GAA player of recent years will be bringing out their autobiography.

And this weekend O’Dwyer will play in the Grand final.

Staunton — or rather, Cora — for she has earned, and is known mostly by, such first-name status — has changed the game in more way than one.

And what’s more, she isn’t finished playing or changing it.

She still has some more to do, just as there’ll be more to follow her.

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