DONAL OG CUSACK: Sport helps us put bad times into perspective

I left Dublin too late last Thursday and had to hare it down the motorway to get to CIT in time, writes Dónal Óg Cusack.

On the drive south I wondered what I could possibly offer the Cork camogie team that they hadn’t got already. I had been invited to give them a brief chat.

I had said, yes. Then I wondered what I could really chat about.

I was right to worry. They were ready and waiting in a meeting room we often used for team meetings with the Cork hurlers. They were a young looking bunch but they had an air of seriousness that matched any team who had ever met in that room.

I said my bit, answered a few questions, wished them luck and headed off to club training feeling a bit like a fraud. They were ready before I walked into that room. In the car as I drove towards Cloyne I realised that they had given me more than I had given them. They had hooked my interest. I knew I would definitely be driving back up the motorway on Sunday morning to go and see them play in last Sunday’s All Ireland final.

When people talk about women’s sport two things always annoy me as much as they must annoy women. First is the endless comparison with men. Paul O’Connell/Robbie Keane/ Henry Shefflin would have been happy with that shot there. Misses the point completely. First, you don’t compare the paintings of one type of painter with those of a completely different artist. If you said, you know Van Gogh, that painting is so good Picasso would put his name to it I’m sure Van Gogh would cut your ear off and then carve your tongue out. Things are excellent on their own terms or they’re not. That’s the only way to judge.

During the season and before the game it’s all about winning. It must be. But if you have played sport and had a few wins you realise something else. That there is an intense pleasure in actually winning but there is a quick comedown where you ask, “is that it?” or, as Briege Corkery put it in an interview last Saturday : “Yay! We won! Forget about it, drive on.”

The great teams and the great players regard winning as a critical benchmark but the journey is about excellence and getting the most out of yourself as a team and as individuals. Expressing yourself, leaving all the potential and all the promise on the field, coming off with nothing more to give, being better this year than you were last year, knowing you’ll be better again next week. When you view sport that way comparisons are stupid and they limit your potential for enjoyment.

The second annoying thing is the pat on the head style of lip service. They’re all grand girls. All the matches they play in are great entertainment. Bullshit. They’re not. There are good players and bad players, beautiful games and ugly games. Geniuses and wasters. Players who make it and players who don’t. That’s why they keep score. Winners and losers.

When I was driving to Cloyne last Thursday I knew I wanted to be in Croke Park because I had come away from the meeting room in CIT with some idea of the story of the Cork camogie team. There’s no story where grand girls always play grand games and everyone is a winner. That’s not interesting.

The story of any team is the struggle to keep it together, it’s where you go on the bad days, what happens in the times when it all seems as if it is going to fall apart. Half an hour in a room with the Cork camogie team I wanted to see how the story came out.

They say about the bad media coverage of women’s sports that you can’t force people to be interested. True. Grand girls playing great games all the time isn’t interesting. But if you tell the stories people will get interested anyway. How could anybody not sit in a room with these people and not wonder just what sort of story ties all these characters together. You have Anna Geary, a Rose of Tralee contestant, and Ashling Thompson, whose tattoos tell the story of what’s in her head on bad days and Briege Corkery a stonemason by trade and possessor of more All-Ireland medals than a lot of counties have and Jenny O’Leary, who travels from Monaghan for training, and Orla Cotter, who stands over frees like a foal with a bad leg but still converts them beautifully… There’s a story in every single one of them in the room. You couldn’t think about them as a group and not want to see how it will end for them.

Croke Park last Sunday. Straight up, the crowd was smaller than I expected it to be. Three All-Ireland finals deserved a bigger crowd, but that’s comparisons again. The value of anything isn’t decided by its popularity. The price perhaps but not the value. There was the same intensity, excitement and passion as you’d get at any sporting occasion. I thought for a moment that maybe it would be better to play the camogie final at a small venue, but then again I’m sure if you asked the players they’d want Croke Park. The pitch was perfect, the day was lovely and if you are at the end of a year’s hard work why not show it on the biggest stage. If people don’t come that’s their loss.

Cork made heavy weather of the first half. Kilkenny had the middle third of the field crowded with bodies and Cork’s running game kept breaking down there. Kilkenny had what breeze there was and looking back they might regret that they weren’t more ambitious. They broke down a lot of Cork’s puckouts and clearances but, with their wing-forwards out around the middle, they weren’t working much quality ball into their full-forward line.

The Cork sideline team, being on the side of the pitch where the crowd were making so much noise, couldn’t get the messages they wanted out onto the field. At times like that you need the old hands to take control. Aoife Murray, who had looked exceptional in goal for Cork, had the misfortune that a ball slipped back out into Michelle Quilty’s path after about 17 minutes and Kilkenny scored a goal to go four points up. A few seconds later Kilkenny added another point. Five ahead.

About a minute later you saw Briege Corkery move from attack into the middle of the pitch. It was like a teacher walking in on a free class. Order. When the teams went in at half-time the gap was still five.

I’m told that it was calm in the Cork dressing room at half-time. Teams who have been through a lot together don’t need much shouting and roaring. Cork came out in the second half and applied their running game.

After conceding an early point they had a run where they scored 1-5 without any answer from Kilkenny and by then it was as good as over. Kilkenny looked fairly spent before the scoreboard told the story. The game was physical with a few dirty strokes and a referee who didn’t seem to have his yellow card with him. Kilkenny eventually started feeling heavy-legged – the way teams did when they used to play Newtownshandrum’s hurlers a few years ago. When you are being run through by a confident team the sheer frustration makes you more tired.

It was the stories that mattered though. Cork’s first goal came from Jennifer O’ Leary. She retired last year when she got married and move to Monaghan. They changed her mind for her though. She trained while she was on honeymoon. She kept coming down from Monaghan to training while she had two family bereavements. She hit every fitness mark they set for her.

The older Cork players have been to parts of the country they never thought they’d see in the few years since they last won an All-Ireland in 2009. It was never assumed they would get back to Croke Park. This year early on they still weren’t sure but the people they had question marks over fell away of their own accord and as they did communication between the rest became more simple and more clear. They had a famous day out to Spike Island in June though, working with the army lads, carrying each other about, being thrown blindfolded into the water, learning to work as a team and communicate as a team. When that was done Joanne O’Callaghan put €200 on her teammates to win the All-Ireland. She got 6-1 at the bookies.

Around the time the team were in Spike Island the women’s football season was taking off. Rena Buckley Angela Walsh and Briege Corkery were committed to both. One weekend the footballers played and beat Clare on Saturday afternoon and the next morning at half eight the camogie side gathered to travel to Dublin for camogie championship.

I can’t explain how any of the dual players do it but if Cork win the football All-Ireland later this month, Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery will each be winning their 14th All Ireland senior medal. You’d imagine Briege must be nearing 50 after all she has crammed into life. She’s 27 and she took a year off to go travelling. These aren’t remarkable women. They are remarkable people. End of.

Gemma O’ Connor was away with the armed forces last year and they missed her hugely. On Sunday it must have been a thrill for somebody like Laura Treacy to be playing corner-back in her first All-Ireland with O’Connor out commanding the half back line. Kilkenny and the teams lining out in the two other finals must have had just as many stories.

I enjoyed the day. At one point in the stand I complained loudly about the refereeing. A woman in front of me turned around and calmly said that she was part of the CCC which had appointed him. A man with an English accent sitting behind me exploded with emotion at one stage. A woman in front of me who must have been at least 80 turned and gave him a death stare which shut him up straight away.

I found myself remembering my own childhood and wondering why I was surprised to be enjoying myself. On my mother’s side my aunties, Marie and Kathleen, both played for Cork and won All-Ireland medals. Marie was a full-back and was picked on the Camogie Team of the Century. She won a four in-a-row in the early seventies with the county. Kathleen was a goalie and won three All-Irelands.

I used to hear camogie stories from my grandmother as I was growing up. I couldn’t get those days out of my head last Sunday, especially my grandmother Joanne Costine, a woman who wouldn’t have been slow to express herself at matches. That trait has been lost in the family since.

As kids if we were in nanny Costine’s house we’d hear camogie stories and the walls were covered in pictures of camogie players and statuettes of camogie players. In my grandmother Cusack’s (Frances Ring) house it was pictures of hurlers, especially the Ringer himself. I always remember one pencil drawn picture of Ring marching with the Cork team before the ’54 final I think it was. I loved that picture.

My father’s family and my mother’s family both lived on a terrace of small houses. Eleven children in my father’s family, 14 in my mother’s family next door, 15 in the O’ Shea’s house a few yards further. No shortage for endless games of hurling. It is remembered in each family that often Marie was a dominant figure in any of those games, always wearing a leather glove as she went about terrorising opposition forwards.

I was leaving Croke Park when I heard Anna Geary say in her speech something I really believe in. Bad times don’t put sport into perspective. It’s the other way around. Sport helps us put bad times into perspective. Sport makes us walk on.

“It’s an opportunity to create a little bit of happiness through the sadness,” Anna said.

There’s nothing that can be added to that.

* Twitter: @donalogc


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