Greater equality for players — not just silverware — is what drives Cork camogie boss Paudie Murray, who tells Eoghan Cormican why things have got to change
Paudie Murray is unable to stand in the middle of the dressing room. It bothers him. A quarter of an hour out from Cork’s national league semi-final and Murray’s focus, along with that of his players, is distracted by the stream of water pouring through the centre of the dressing-room ceiling.
On a wet Sunday at Kilmallock in April 2013, the Cork senior camogie team edged past Clare to secure their place in the league decider. Not a single drop of hot water is to be got upon their return to the dressing room and so, aside from the handful of players brave enough to endure a cold shower, the majority slump onto the team bus cold, damp, and dreary.
The Cork manager cuts a disgruntled figure on the journey home. He simply cannot make peace with the second-class treatment of camogie’s elite.
His sister Aoife has been Cork’s first-choice goalkeeper since 2004 and while he’d have heard from her the odd tale or two before taking up the position of manager in the winter of 2011, it wasn’t until staring down at the pool of water gathering at his feet in the Kilmallock dressing room that he fully appreciated what inter-county camogie players have come to expect as the norm.
Sipping on his americano during lunch hour in the Kudos restaurant of the Clarion Hotel, Paudie Murray casts an eye over his four years as Cork boss.
First mention is not of back-to-back All-Ireland glory, rather his disappointment at how little has changed in the treatment of the game’s elite players and the below-par standards accepted by top-brass.
He’s lost count of the number of times he’s turned into a venue for a league game only to be greeted by “half a foot of grass” inside four poorly drawn white lines. Even more galling, he remarks, is that referees are not obliged to bring their own linesmen for round-robin league fixtures.
The Cloughduv native has been involved with the Cork intermediate side for the past two years and there has hardly been a single match, league or championship, where neutral linesman were in place.
One intermediate championship game from the 2014 campaign continues to bug him. Two linesman were plucked from outside the fence minutes before throw in. Over the hour, two contentious line balls were contested; a ‘home decision’ given on both occasions. Cork lost by a point.
This year’s All-Ireland senior final was blotted by 28 frees. The decider produced 23 scores; less than half of which arrived from open play. Cork may have departed Jones Rd with the O’Duffy Cup again resting on the front of the team bus, but Murray has no qualms in admitting it was a poor game, a poor advertisement for the sport.
The All-Ireland final is one of three camogie matches broadcast live on television each year and so, for the majority of GAA enthusiasts, their opinion of the game is based around the 60 minutes they are treated to on September’s second Sunday.
Murray wants more championship games broadcast live, but first port of call, he says, must be a dramatic redrawing of the rulebook. This ‘no contact’ concept infuriates him.
“The rules are farcical,” he remarks, straightening in his chair. “Granted, people will give out about referees and I did a fair bit of it myself when I came in first. But I am not so sure now. I think the majority of referees go out to do a good job. The problem is that the current rules make life very difficult on them. They have to bring the rules back towards hurling. The Camogie Association has gone down the road where they are trying to bring in non-contact. Now, when you have 15 on 15 on a pitch, with sticks, well then there has to be contact. It is just impossible not to have contact.
“The way referees are assessed has to be looked at too. I can’t understand, with the technology they have today, that every game isn’t videoed and then shown to the referee afterwards as opposed to bringing in an assessor who marks the referee during a match. It is only when you sit down and watch the game back that you see the things you missed.
“The All-Ireland final was a bad game. The referee did a good job within the rules, but the rules are wrong. You are either going to go completely non-contact or you are going to let the game flow.
“Take the All-Ireland semi-final, now that was a cracking game, with plenty of flow. But sure, who saw it? Only the couple hundred that were there. There is a serious problem there. The game needs more exposure. They are going to have to start pumping more money into the promotion of the game.”
Camogie, calling a spade a spade, rarely finds itself on the back page or at the top of the radio bulletin, and yet three times this summer, much to Murray’s dismay, and many more along with him, the Camogie Association was thrust front and centre.
First, there was the furore over the staging of Cork’s All-Ireland championship encounter against Offaly and the county’s Munster ladies football final against Kerry on the same day, forcing Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery to play two games in the space of five hours.
There followed the coin toss controversy involving Clare and Dublin; not forgetting of course the decision of the Wexford County Board to appeal the result of their All-Ireland semi-final defeat based on a contentious ’45 and their anger at the six-minutes of injury time played.
Not exactly the exposure Murray was referring to. “Camogie has to come under the GAA umbrella. If camogie and ladies football were under the one umbrella then there would be no more of these fixture clashes.
“I am a member of the St Finbarr’s club and we are all one up there. When it comes to fundraising, the ladies side normally bring in the main chunk. And yet we are separating them at national level.
“I have two daughters growing up at the moment. They have a local outlet to play which wasn’t there in a lot of places 20 years ago. If there was a small bit of effort put into it, it could be boom-time for camogie as it is a great game to play. It is quite cheap to play too. I have a daughter in gymnastics. Now, that’s expensive.”
What bothers him, though, more than fixture clashes, a stone-age rulebook, poor television coverage, absent linesman, and cold showers is that camogie players tolerate the second-class treatment. “Go back to the league semi-final in Kilmallock, a big game, and there was literally water pouring through the roof. That is acceptable to the girls. They know no different.
“No one will give you respect. You have to get it. How can you get it if you tolerate that?
“I brought that to the attention of someone in Croke Park and they did nothing about it. We have gone into pitches where the grass is a half a foot long and it is considered acceptable.
“The issue with linesmen is acceptable by Croke Park because surely they have to know what is going on. It is something that I have raised on a couple of occasions and nothing has been done about it. It is unfair on the girls.”
Standards. High standards, rather.
It is the sole currency Paudie Murray deals in. He knows his position, though. He is a manager, not an administrator. The standards he has focused on improving over the past four years have been exclusively confined to the Cork camogie panel. As he says himself, they were in desperate need of attention when he stepped into the job in December of 2011.
Cork had not lifted the O’Duffy Cup since 2009. A two-year absence from the top table hardly represented a crisis. But in Cork, it constituted a famine.
To put it into perspective, one would have to return to the 1985-86 deciders to locate successive finals which did not involve the red and white.
The team’s confidence had lagged, preparation was poor, expectation was low, and the collective attitude was simply indifferent. This wasn’t the Cork with which he had seen Aoife win four All-Irelands.
“We laugh about it now, but we had girls going to concerts on the night before championship matches.
“We had girls coming to training with one hurley, coming to championship games with one hurley. And if they had two hurleys, the second one was pulled out of the bag, was way too heavy for them, and no grip on it.
“We have come to a situation now where the pressure is on me to deliver because the players expect and demand certain standards. It has gone full circle. We have girls coming to team meetings now with notepads whereas I remember going to a meeting a number of years ago, there was a speaker in and two players nudged each other saying ‘we have heard all this before’. That wouldn’t happen today.
“Take a typical midweek training; Orla Cotter will be there 40 minutes beforehand practising her frees. That didn’t happen four-years ago.
“There wasn’t a whole pile of them doing gym work four years ago. They are all doing it now. We are by no means the finished article, but they have come a long way.”
Murray recalls one training session in Castle Road where a gale-force wind made hurling next to impossible. Those unfortunate enough to have to play into the elements were making little or no ground when striking.
“Aoife came over and had a right go at management. We told her we didn’t control the weather, but this was the kind of standards they had now reached. They wanted everything perfect.”
Said mentality contributed to the All-Ireland final win over Kilkenny in 2013, but the stampede to the departure lounge in the subsequent months meant there weren’t many predicting a second O’Duffy Cup during his tenure.
When the revolving door eventually ground to a halt last May, the Murray Browne Auctioneers employee had lost six of his finest troops.
First off the carousel were Jenny O’Leary and Joanne O’Callaghan. Once the final whistle had sounded on the 2013 final win, Murray knew he had seen the last of the long-serving pair. Sara Hayes was third to announce her retirement in the days after the final. Then came the conversation with Angela Walsh in November where the dual star revealed she was pregnant with her first child and so would be sitting out the 2014 campaign.
With the right corner-back slot and two positions in the half-forward line to be filled, Murray cast the net far and wide for the following year’s league. Starting positions were handed to relative newcomers Lauren Callanan, Leanne O’Sullivan, Méabh Cahalane, and Amy O’Connor.
The new-look side fought their way to a league final, but had been found out by half-time; 2-10 to 0-5 they trailed Galway. Two days later and All-Ireland- winning captain Anna Geary was gone. The retiring group had reached six by the close of May with Joanne Casey, a nurse at CUH, unable to commit.
A week out from their opening All-Ireland championship encounter in mid-June and 2013 final player of the match Eimear O’Sullivan ruptured her posterior cruciate ligament.
“There was no point panicking. What was there to be gained from panicking,” asks Murray.
“If you were a betting man, though, and were looking at all the players leaving and the young, inexperienced players replacing them, you would say it is going to be extremely difficult.
“I looked at it from the point of view that if each of these new players could improve by 1% in each match come the quarter-final, then we’d have a chance.
“By that stage, you’d have four championship games, two Munster championship games, and six league games under their belt. That is 12 games so you are looking at a close to 15% improvement.
“We had to be patient and give the new girls a chance. If we went out in the first championship game and Orla Cronin is getting cleaned at centre-forward, the worst thing you could do is take Orla Cronin off. If you are going through a bad patch, that player might want to get taken off. They could be saying in their head, ‘Will he ever take me out of my misery?’ If you leave her on, though, she has to either figure her way out of it or continue to allow herself be cleaned. That is the way I viewed it. I didn’t panic.”
The loss of so many experienced players rang true in the group stages as Cork emerged second-best against both Galway and Wexford. The 0-13 to 0-10 defeat to Wexford at Riverstown in mid-July turned their season.
“I did say to them at the start of the year that it takes a very good team to retain an All-Ireland because most teams who fail to string back-to-back All-Irelands fail because of a lack of hunger. That is a mental thing more than anything else. I questioned after the Wexford game if the hunger was there, if the real desire was there. We all spoke about this after the Wexford game.”
Murray received his answer in the three knock-out games that followed; Tipperary, Kilkenny, and Galway put away by margins of 13, 9, and 7 points respectively. Cork’s stay atop camogie’s summit extended.
From the All-Ireland matchday squad, 10 of the 14 subs sitting in the Hogan Stand were in their first year with the panel. On the field, Leanne O’Sullivan, Méabh Cahalane, Orla Cronin, Hannah Looney, and Amy O’Connor were playing in their first All-Ireland final. Not bad for a team supposedly in transition.
“The transition phase was overcome by a weekend we spent in Spike Island between league and championship.
“With the way things have gone, you get your senior players showing up for training on a Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Of the two hours they are training, the girls are probably talking for 10 minutes of them two hours. The getting-to-know period is very small. When you are inside in a tent on a cold Spike Island for 12 hours and the life probably frightened out of you before you go to bed because you have just been told you’ll be marching the island at a very late hour, you wouldn’t be long in getting to know people then.”
Given Cork haven’t achieved the three-in-a-row since ’72, will Paudie Murray hang around for 2016? Then again, one Murray has already announced her retirement from the inter-county scene. Could another be tempted to follow suit?
“The level of time and workrate that goes into this is pretty extraordinary. I am looking at the championship draws and the likelihood is that I will have 10 weekends on the trot from the middle of June to the middle of August, if we keep winning. That is 10 weekends in a bus going somewhere. That doesn’t give you much time for family life. Then you have those 6am starts on the exercise bike where the television is on in front of you and you are studying videos of the team and the opposition. It is pretty relentless. There is a three-in-a-row there and that is the carrot. I talk to the girls about loyalty. It mightn’t be so great if I walked away.”
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