Basketball legend Gráinne Dwyer takes no offence when you raise her age and liken her to Johnny Sexton ahead of tomorrow’s historic European qualifier in the Netherlands.
“Sure it’s a hot topic right now,” grins the Tipperary woman who is also 36 and co-captains her country.
The comparisons don’t just end there; she too would go through you for the ball.
She also still loves to duke it out for an Irish shirt with teammates who are up to 15 years younger, and abhors the notion that she’s selected for her undoubted leadership qualities.
“People sometimes say ‘oh your experience’ but I’m like ‘fuck my experience, I’m a player! If I’m here I want to play and I want to be able to play well enough,” she states, just as vehemently as you’d expect from someone who once scored 40 points in a schools’ cup final.
“I’m not going to come here and not be able to compete. I play for the team and I play for a starting spot and, when James (Weldon, Ireland coach) makes his decisions, I just want to know what my role is and how I can contribute to the team.”
So far so Sexton, though Dwyer is the first to admit she hasn’t been half as diligent off-field in the past.
“In the earlier years I really didn’t look after myself at all,” she admits. “I’m really lucky now that we have two great S&C guys and a physio that I can call on any time. I’ve actually started to mind my body so much more now.
“I’m not married and don’t have kids so I have time to be selfish, to concentrate on this. It’s such a big part of my life and my identity. I don’t ever think ‘how am I going to keep going?’. I think ‘what’ll I do when I stop?’”
It’s a whopping 21 years since she made her debut in an Irish vest — a 15-year-old ‘cadet’ in the Home Nations in Aberdeen — but seven of those were lost when Basketball Ireland’s financial problems caused them to pull out of international competition between 2010-2016.
Dwyer had already broken through onto a famous Irish women’s team that fell just one qualifying point short of joining Europe’s A division back in 2008-2009, though she actually missed the final stages of that run as she had taken a year out to travel.
Like all but two of her current teammates (Anna Kelly (Charleroi) and newcomer Maura Fitzpatrick (Gloucester City) she’s still a complete amateur and has taken a week off work in the Carrigaline branch of AIB for this pivotal moment for the current generation.
Since returning to European competition in 2016, Ireland have competed in ‘smaller nations’ tournaments where they twice finished runners-up.
Now they’re stepping up to compete in the top tier, ranked lowest in their Eurobasket 2023 qualifying group that starts against Holland on Thursday and the Czech Republic (in Tallaght) on Sunday before resuming against top seeds Belarus in a year’s time.
Dwyer may not want to be measured by her experience but it will surely help keep her teammates realistic, especially the handful of youngsters who have notably won European ‘B’ titles at U18 and U20 level.
“At the end of the day, it is about going forward with these young players. Some of them are so chill and calm and I’m running around like a headless chicken,” she laughs.
“I wouldn’t have the best basketball IQ but there’s a bit of a dog in me. I’ve got a lot of heart and fight still and I think that’s what carries me over the line.
“I’m playing senior for Ireland since I was in my teens. Back then I was just getting three minutes a-game playing with the likes of my sister Niamh, Michelle Fahy, Susan Moran, Gillian Aherne, Carmel Kissane, and so on. They were tough women. That’s where I come from, it was a different era.
“I haven’t played at this level either for years but there are people my age now who are full-time professionals. That’s what we’re now facing and we have to be able for that, but it’s also what’s needed for our sport to move forward.”