When Cork blitzed Tipperary in the second half of a 15-point defeat at CIT on June 22, it was the third serious setback in a horror week that had begun with Nicole Walsh being airlifted from The Ragg unconscious and was followed by the resignation of manager Bill Mullaney for health reasons.
With the Waterford clash having been postponed due to Walsh’s frightening plight, the rescheduled fixture meant they would be playing six weekends in a row. It was a back-breaking load, given the circumstances.
Yet they thrived, Niamh Lillis and the rest of the management group galvanising their squad with quiet assurance. Despite suffering further injuries to key players, Tipp bagged four consecutive triumphs to secure a Liberty Insurance All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick at Semple Stadium tonight (5.30pm).
“Talk to anyone about camogie and it is always Kilkenny, Cork, Galway in the top three. We’ve been there trying to get that fourth spot but seeing as we got to the semi-final last year, we want to push on. We were looking forward to the championship and driving on.”
“I was lucky I was in the era where my first year at senior we won an All-Ireland final. We won three in a row after that as well. Year on year we were getting there every year too. It’s where Tipp should be.
“What we have this year is a really good minor team. We have pulled a few off that team for both senior and intermediate. Then you have the likes of Mary Ryan. She has been a long servant of Tipperary camogie. She would remind you of Patrick Horgan, nobody deserves a medal more than Mary Ryan.”
Tipp were four points down to Waterford at The Ragg when Walsh hit the ground.
And didn’t move.
“I did actually get a knock in the first half. I didn’t go out cold. People are saying it was from the initial knock. The second knock I looked back over it on video. I just remember going for ball. I don’t remember colliding with the girl. I was spark out.
“I just remember waking up in the helicopter in mid-air and your man telling me ‘You are okay, you are safe.’ I ended up in the surgery room and I ended up being okay. I bounced back after two weeks. I wasn’t allowed to play any sport or do any kind of running or cardio.
“Waking up in a chopper was some fright. I have never got concussed in my life before. I didn’t know what was going on. My head was spinning. A lot of drama but I came out on the other side of it.”
“It was horrendous for Nicole. Our own doctor Paul Scully was very concerned. He sat on the ground holding her neck for three-quarters of an hour because he was worried. Guys like that don’t panic either.
“The match goes out the window. She is somebody’s daughter and sister. She is a colleague. Thank God she was taken to Dublin that day by helicopter and they did the scans and everything. They let her home the following evening. They said bad concussion. I saw her on the Monday night and she was shook enough. I met her on the Friday night and the recovery in the couple of days was fantastic.”
“To see Nicole go down and stay down. To see the helicopter. That was scary and we were all scared but at least she was okay.”
During the week, Mullaney told them that he would have to step away from the coalface. He had helped them end a lengthy drought from the knockout stages last year and brought the intermediates Division 2 League success in the spring. It was a bolt from the blue.
“He contacted me on the Sunday night before the Cork game and he just said he had to step down for health reasons. I was devastated to lose him. I will make no bones on that. I am still devastated. He has been around that team a long time. Some of them girls he had them at minor and he has been involved with them at U16. My daughter Caoimhe, Caroline, his own daughter, Karen Kennedy, Orla O’Dwyer.”
“I had Bill from U16 all the way up along. And playing both the camogie and football, he was very good to communicate with (football manager) Shane (Ronayne). That made my job a lot easier.”
“I was only coming back around and I heard about Bill. I regained my confidence thanks to Bill. In the last few years… I was unlucky. I broke my wrist twice in the space of three months. I took a year out two summers ago. When I came back in this year Bill was just constantly giving me confidence and telling me I could do this and that. They were things I thought I was never able to do but I was because Bill had full faith in me. I was devastated to see that he was gone. We hope to God he does come back in the future but his health is the important thing at the end of the day.”
We had a meeting with the management team. They agreed to stay put. I have to say I don’t think there was ever a question they were going to step back. Niamh is an excellent manager. I know her, she is from my own club in Drom & Inch and she has managed our senior team for a few years. She still trains with the club. She knows it backwards and she has a couple of All-Irelands under her belt herself. She understands girls which is important. They respect her and she respects them.”
“You would have this fear; what is going on? But after everything that happened, after the Cork game, we came in on the Wednesday night after that tough time and we had a brief chat. We had to park it. We were playing a match in three days’ time. In one sense you are saying we have had six very tough weeks with all the games. If we didn’t have games so close, we mightn’t have got over it. We had no choice in the matter. And we were together all the time.
“I played with Niamh when I first came in (in 2005). It is gas really. Dinny (Ferncombe) and Eddie (Costello) take most of our sessions and that hasn’t changed. It all just happened and we rolled with it. The backroom team remained and that was it. I got a remark there after the Clare game, ‘You need a manager’ and I was thinking, ‘We have a manager.’ We had to buy into what was going on.”
They had to go to Walsh Park for the rematch with Waterford. It was a pulsating affair and despite losing O’Dwyer to a hamstring injury in the first half, Tipp prevailed by 4-11 to 2-14. They were off and running.
“I’d say that was one of our best matches in the championship. Going down after such a defeat from Cork and knowing it was our second time going in to play Waterford after getting such a fright from them the first day. That was excellent and the girls all pulled up their socks. The younger girls like Grace O’Toole had a really phenomenal game. The senior players pushed it on. Nicole was still missing so it was a special match and we were delighted to win it.”
“That was such a tough game. Early on we had rattled Waterford with Orla inside on her own. Then to lose Orla we were thinking, ‘Is this going to flip things over?’ But we came out with the win. Then a week later we had Karen (Kennedy) going off injured and won. Then to come through the Dublin game as well when we knew we were down players.”
“The thing about the girls is they are a resilient bunch. They come back here year-in, year-out in the interest of Tipperary. There is huge tradition in Tipperary and you can’t forget that. It is very important. Any knock they get they are ready to face it and they take off again. They did pull it together very quick against Waterford. We were deserving winners on the day and our championship has taken off since that.”
That sparked a run of four consecutive wins, as the scalps of Clare, Dublin and Meath were also claimed. Next up are Limerick and after a very successful Meet & Greet at The Ragg, are hoping that the home support are out in force in Thurles.
“We are laughing about signing the autographs. But at the same time isn’t it great that you have young girls coming up saying ‘Will you sign my jersey?’ You see it day-in, day-out with the lads and everyone knows who they are. That is the fact of it. You do have to work harder. It is not as high profile. There is definitely a buzz with the camogie now though, a good feeling.
“Slowly but surely I am back into training. Management are brilliant, they took me for sessions themselves. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am today, ready to play and after getting on against Dublin and playing the full game against Meath. I did find it hard in the first half to get my breathing right and I felt my second wind was never going to come. I am delighted management are trusting me and putting their full faith in me.
“The girls deserve the credit. They are a great bunch. They have put down a tough campaign. There is nowhere better to play other than Semple Stadium. When that Tipp chant goes out it would lift the hair on the back of your neck. It is hugely important and hopefully we will get a huge crowd inside in Semple Stadium for the girls.”