Tireless Thurles girls power on to treble glory

When you’re winning, you don’t get tired.

That’s according to Barry Ryan, PE teacher at the Presentation Secondary School in Thurles, Co Tipperary, and co-manager of the school’s camogie, ladies football and soccer teams.

This year, Presentation Thurles became the first school to win the treble: Munster titles in all three codes.

“It’s just been one of those years, it’s crazy,” says Ryan. A former League of Ireland player with Kilkenny City, Ryan talks animatedly about his young players’ achievements as if he’s just come off the pitch after a win. The finals came in quick succession, he says, with each win adding to the momentum.

“The girls just wanted match after match — 24 hours after the All-Ireland soccer final we had the Munster football final. One of the girls, Casey Hennessy, played the full soccer final and the next day scored three goals and a point in the football final. She’s just a machine at the moment, all she wants is a game all the time.”

It’s taken Ryan and his co-manager, Thurles Sarsfields hurler Cian Treacy, just three years to bring all three teams to Munster victory.

There were some near-misses and agonising defeats along the way. Last year, they were two games away from the treble, becoming All-Ireland football champions but losing Munster finals in both camogie and soccer. 

There was a huge sense of redemption, according to Ryan, in winning those finals this year — particularly in the camogie.

“If we’d have been making a documentary... I mean, some of the stuff that happened was just unbelievable,” he says. 

“Last year, in the fourth minute of injury-time we conceded a free to the Ursuline Thurles, our nearest neighbours, and we lost by a point. A few days went by and we had a meeting to debrief. All the girls took responsibility and we talked about it. So we felt it was no coincidence when the exact same thing happened this year against Coachford. Once again, we conceded a free in the fourth minute of injury-time to go a point down. We were looking at each other on the sideline going, ‘I don’t believe it.’”

Except this year, it was different. In the sixth minute of injury-time, Grace O’Donnell, a member of the Kilkenny senior panel and a boarder at the school, found the back of the net.

“We’re convinced it’s because we’d already had that conversation. No matter what happens, we keep going to 65, 66, 67 minutes, whatever it is.”

The players were mentally prepared for even the most unlikely scenarios, Ryan says. “There was no sense of heads dropping. They’re an unbelievable group, we’ll probably never have a group like them again. They’re just sensational.”

The Presentation’s string of victories is all the more remarkable considering that, being a medium-sized school, there are significant overlaps between the three panels. Four students played on all three teams: Casey Hennessy, Aoibheann Clancy, Katie Ryan and Ciara Dwan.

Nearly every player, according to Ryan, won at least two medals. One senses that many of these young players may face a difficult choice between sports in the coming years; Ryan himself quit GAA to focus on soccer at the age of 16. 

Regardless of which sport they choose, however, they’ve been given a near-elite sporting experience at the school.

“The way we go about it is probably different than other schools — we’re very professional,” says Ryan. “We’d have a team meeting during the week. Two days before the game we’d name the team. We’d have the other school’s team up on the board, we’d know all their players. We’d organise ice baths for the girls straight after big games, recovery drinks in the dressing room, a real sports-science emphasis in how we prepare.”

There was an investment in the teams that the young players hadn’t quite experienced before.

“Everyone is asking us, how did we get such a buy-in? When myself and Cian came in, there wasn’t much of an emphasis on the camogie and football. The football team was down in the D grade at the time. 

“The big thing was, we started treating them like inter-county players. They responded, took on the responsibility and started playing like elite athletes, taking their recovery seriously. They loved it… we got them to buy into the idea of being a professional athlete, and we just reaped the benefits of it.”

The teams weren’t stacked with older players as one might expect. “Our policy was, if you’re good enough you’re old enough. The All-Ireland soccer final against Moville from Donegal was the real proof of the pudding. 

“I’d be very optimistic but even I didn’t think we’d win the final, I thought we’d be way too young. We won 2-0 in the final and two 14-year-olds, Emma O’Sullivan and Aoibheann Clancy, scored the two goals. I don’t think they’d have been playing in any other school.” 

T

he Presentation’s success is a good news story at a time when figures suggest that at least half of girls drop out of team sports before they turn 14. 

Ryan, who completed his thesis on teenage girls soccer, believes that there are social reasons for the dropout rates, such as it being harder for girls to remain on the peripheries of teams than it is for boys.

“On a panel of 30, if you’re number 27 or 28 and you’re not starting… management tend to focus on the girls who are playing. And there’s huge dedication — instead of getting the bus home after school with all your friends and going down the town, you’re going over to the field in the rain.”

Ryan theorises that there are certain social costs for girls when they commit to sport; for boys, however, there are social rewards, which are often enough to keep them involved.

“If a boy can be part of the Tipp minor panel, even if he’s not going to be playing, he’s delighted to be in the middle of it. If you’re a young fella and all your friends are on the Harty Cup team and you’re number 27 — if you drop away from it you’re out of the loop. Out of the social side of it as well — going for a few pints after a big match, all that.

“But girls have so many other things going on, so many things to pick up and do instead.”

To counteract this, Ryan and Treacy made the subs on their panels an integral part of the backroom setup.

“We would give roles to those girls — one might be in charge of recovery drinks, another would be in charge of the WhatsApp group. So they’d be heavily involved in everything and would have leadership roles. I might tip off one of the girls on a Tuesday, ‘we’re having a meeting tomorrow, will you say a few words at the end?’

“Invariably we’d pick someone who’s not starting. There’s a real sense of togetherness, so even if they’re not playing they’re just as invested and going mad at the final whistle.”

So, where next for this formidable group of players? While the camogie team was defeated in the All-Ireland semi-final, the footballers just beat Loreto Mullingar at the same stage. They now have a chance to defend their title and make it an All-Ireland double.

The minor football team also recently won Munster, indicating that the school’s sporting future is a bright one. Ryan credits the ethos of the school, particularly that of the principal, Marie Collins.

“Marie is an ex-PE teacher and coached the basketball to senior All-Ireland success,” he says.

“She’s been hugely influential in terms of the school’s approach to sports. What pleased her most about the recent wins was that there was a combined total of 85 players on the three squads. She wants these girls playing sport.”


Lifestyle

For the interiors lover who can’t resist a New Year’s revamp or a simple freshening up, there are plenty of new books on the shelves to inspire, writes Carol O’CallaghanFour new books to inspire your interiors renovation

Helen O’Callaghan hears about awards for global changeGOAL Changemakers Award: Primary schools asked for views

More From The Irish Examiner