Denis WalshInterview

Cora Staunton: ‘It was an experience I wasn’t ready for, but it was probably the best thing I did’

Gaelic football or AFLW - the only difference was the game. Everything in her was the same

Six days before her 36th birthday Cora Staunton landed in Sydney to begin a new half-life. Sure of herself, unsure of herself. What did they know about her? What did it matter? All of her reputational capital as one of the greatest Gaelic footballers of all-time was frozen in another account. The Greater Western Sydney Giants had courted her for months, but when they finally popped the question she said yes quickly. That left time to think again.

“I went out to do the trial and still in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I’m never going to do this,’” says Staunton now, more than five years later, on the week that chapter closed. “I signed and the next day it broke in the media [in Australia] and even still, I came back to Ireland and was kind of like, ‘Maybe I still won’t go,’ – even though I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ We won the All-Ireland with the club (Carnacon) and it was just a whirlwind. Two days after the All-Ireland I’m like, ‘Oh God, why did I say I’d do this?’ On the plane journey out I was doubting everything.”

Because it was new it was also unsettled. The women’s AFL was a semi-professional league with only eight teams, heading into just its second season, a start-up, spin-off business hustling for its share of a teeming market. Staunton was the first Irish player to be recruited, seduced by the sense of adventure, and in some way, by the unavoidable risk.

In her life as an elite sports person she had never been threatened by personal failure. Her talent had given her indemnity. By going to Australia, to play an alien game, to train full-time, at a stage in her life as an athlete when she was closer to midnight than midday, Staunton had exposed herself to falling down.


Nothing about it was easy. In December 2017 she arrived into the middle of a scorching Australian summer. She was half-hobbled by a knock that she had picked up in the club final with Carnacon, wrung-out from training in 40 degree heat and disorientated by the strangeness of everything. On top of all that, Staunton had committed to a documentary for TG4, which meant that for eight weeks in Sydney she was trailed by television cameras, adding other eyes to the awkwardness.

“It was hugely daunting. The first month out there, I absolutely hated it. It was such a strange environment. I had never been in an environment where I had to get to know people. I had been in teams where I had been there for a long time. I didn’t know anyone there and they’re looking at me, ‘Who’s this one coming in? Who does she think she is?’

“It wasn’t that the girls didn’t like you, but they just weren’t fully sure (about me). There was probably the barrier of the way we talk and they struggled to understand me – I spoke so quick. People only see one side of you on the field, but I’m a shy type of person that only trusts a few people. I just think as well that the team didn’t trust that – I don’t know – didn’t trust that I was any good, just from training and stuff.

“Then we played a practice match against the Brisbane Lions in early January. I did very well, I showed what I was capable of doing and all of a sudden, I don’t know, the attitude of everyone just changed. So, there was all of that. It was probably an experience that, at my age, I probably wasn’t ready for, but it was probably the best thing I did.”

Though she had informed the club of her decision to leave before Christmas the announcement was only made in midweek. They had both reached a crossroads. A new coach had taken over the Giants at the beginning of last season, and after a topsy-turvy year, the club needed to build a more youthful playing roster and be patient. At 41 years of age, Staunton was bound to a different timetable.

“I just felt the club was nearly back at a rebuilding phase. I’m obviously fiercely competitive and I’m probably at the other stage where I was looking for ultimate glory. I probably felt I hadn’t the energy to go into a rebuilding process, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be there when hopefully they got ultimate success. As they always said to me, I’m probably the ultimate professional, where they wanted all the girls to get to. They were keen to keep me but I just knew the direction the club was going.”

It had been an extraordinary time in her life. In Gaelic football, Staunton had no other frontiers to conquer. Everything achieved had been inside borders that she recognised. Those achievements were safe. In Australia, she needed to explore other limits: how hard could she push, how far would it take her? The conditions of her working visa were such that she couldn’t take a part-time job outside of football, even if she had wanted to. Instead, she devoted herself to learning.

“I always wanted to challenge myself to get better and better and better. That was evident from when I went out there. I loved the environment of being fully professional. I was in the club every day. I was being pulled off the training pitch most days because I was over doing it. I was immersed in it. I used to come in and watch the men training all the time. That first year was a shock. I actually thought it should be easy enough to pick up the game. How wrong I was. It took so many hours of extra training, and working with a coach, just to try to get better.

“But I say to anyone, when you go out there, the only option is to get the best out of yourself. You have every resource, you have the time. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Now, not everyone is as driven to do that. Like, when I came back from my leg break that is probably the strongest and fittest I have ever been in my life.”

I was Cora, I wasn’t Cora the footballer. It was good to go into work and just be a nobody

At the time, it was a catastrophic injury. In her desire to keep improving Staunton delayed coming home at the end of her second season, and instead decided to play a few matches for a local club team in Sydney. In the second game she broke her leg in four places. Attempting to sidestep an opponent her foot got stuck in the ground, and when she was tackled she couldn’t move: she was a sitting target. *

“That was some of the lowest times because you’re mentally so challenged. At the same time, God, the challenge of coming back from such a serious injury, when I look back on it, it was brilliant. I just revelled in it. I was training six days a week, probably four or five hours a day. Not that I loved it at the time, but I just loved the challenge. I had to learn how to walk again, how to run, how to jump – all of that. I just loved being in the environment and being pushed all the time. I came back stronger.

“I always remember, we did 2k time trials, and I absolutely hated them, but [at the beginning of the following season] I did the best 2k I ever did. I cut over a minute off my 2k that season.”

Along the way Staunton made consequential life choices. Before she went to Australia she worked with the HSE as a Primary Healthcare Co-ordinator. In the first couple of years she took unpaid leave, and then picked up the thread during the five or six months of the year that she would spend in Ireland. But as the seasons went by that arrangement became less and less satisfactory and in 2020 she cut the cord.

“I loved the role. I was basically working with Traveller women. They’d come in and I’d help them on various health matters, and then we ran a three-year course with them, that they’d do part-time. When they were qualified they’d go out and disseminate information to their own community. It was a peer led programme. My role was to work with the women to educate them, so that they could bring the education out.

“When I went in to work with them on a Monday morning, and through the week, I was nobody. They rarely got excited about football. They knew I played. I think the only time they got really excited was when they saw me on The Late Late Show. I was Cora, I wasn’t Cora the footballer. It was good to go into work and just be a nobody.”

In the five years she spent in Australia, the women’s AFL prospered and grew. There are 18 teams in the league now, each one fully professional. A 94 per cent pay increase was negotiated across the board last season and Staunton says that the top 30 players in the league are “extremely well paid.”

The colony of Irish players has continued to grow too. After Staunton in season two there were eight the year after and 18 before the pandemic stemmed the flow. When the new season starts in August she reckons there will be more than 30 Irish players in the league. “I met a girl and a Mam last week and sat and talked to them for about an hour and a half,” she says. “The girl is only 17 and hoping to go out there in two years’ time.” That was the pathway Staunton forged.

She came home with applause ringing in her ears: the highest goalscorer in the short history of the Giants; the joint second-highest goalscorer in the history of the league. More than that, she embraced the raw, grinding ferocity of the game. Staunton didn’t miss a match for the Giants in five seasons: 50 consecutive appearances. Last season, she broke her nose in round two and her thumb in round three. Still didn’t stop.

“I just loved the physical element and that was there all the time. It’s a war of attrition – but you’re able to be resilient.”

The only difference was the game. Everything in her was the same.

Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh is a sports writer with The Irish Times