Last year’s defeat to Dublin adds to Cork’s semi-final motivation
Ciara O’Sullivan says the rivalry between the teams is intense
Cork’s Ciara O’Sullivan with Martha Byrne of Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland final in Croke Park. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Croke Park had held nothing but the best of memories for Ciara O’Sullivan, from her first appearance as a teenager back in the 2008 All-Ireland final, when she scored a goal within a minute of coming on as a substitute, to the two occasions she captained her county to victory there.
Eight times in all she had played in finals in the stadium, and eight times she had left the place with a winner’s medal in her pocket. But then along came the Dubs last September.
“And when you’re standing in the middle of Croke Park looking up and they’re the ones with the cup. You never forget how that made you feel. Never. And we’ll use that for a bit of extra motivation for Sunday’s semi-final.”
Not that she begrudged Dublin their success last year. After all four of her medals had come at their expense, and twice, in 2015 and 2016, their players had to stand on the pitch looking up at her raising the Brendan Martin Cup.
“But they kept at it,” she says, “and you can only respect them for that. Especially after losing the three finals in a row to us. We went through something similar with Mourneabbey, losing three club finals in four years before we finally did it last October, so I know how hard it is.
“But look at Dublin now, they’re the standard bearers, going for a three in a row. So it took massive character for them to get to where they are now.”
There’s been an epic quality to the rivalry between the two counties over the last decade, so many of their league and championship meetings settled by the narrowest of margins, several featuring dizzying comebacks.
Three of Cork’s All-Ireland victories over Dublin since 2009 were by a single point, the fourth by just two. And in their most recent encounter back in April, Cork prevailed by a point yet again after their National League semi-final went to extra time.
“We’ve had some unreal games over the years,” says O’Sullivan, who has four All-Stars to her name and was on the shortlist for last year’s Player of the Year award.
Ruling the roost
“And even when we were ruling the roost there was so little between us. So there was never any feeling that we were way better than Dublin, and now that they’re on top I doubt they feel the same either – there still isn’t much between us.
“We’ve had a good year since losing to them, winning the league and the Munster title. But they were just stepping stones along the way – the All-Ireland is the one we want. And back when Cork were winning those 11 All-Irelands in 12 years, we were probably young and naive enough to think that we were always going to win, that it was just the norm, that you’d have 10 more years and lots more chances.
“But as you get older you realise every year, every time you get to play in Croke Park, whether it’s the final or semi-final, could be your last. And we’re trying to instil that in the younger players. There are people all over the county who would give their right arm to be part of it, so we’re just trying to appreciate what we have.”
While much of the chat about the men’s game centres on Dublin’s dominance and the possibility of them going unchallenged for some time yet, O’Sullivan insists there’s no reason to fear the women’s game following a similar path.
“I hope not anyway! But I think our game is far more balanced – there’s Galway and Mayo in the other semi-final this year, Kerry are rebuilding again, Monaghan are too. Donegal are a force, there’s Armagh, there are a lot of counties who you could have said at the start of the year had a chance of making the last four.”
“We have a very good conveyor belt of players coming through from the underage teams, Galway especially have too, so I think there’s good strength around the counties. There’s a lot of hard work being done at that level.
“And we’re very lucky to have a good set-up, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, all that. And while I think ourselves and Dublin have been in a more fortunate position than many other counties that way, it’s definitely improving every year. So, no, I don’t think the women’s game will become like the men’s, with Dublin becoming dominant, and we’d be hoping to have a say in that.”
This time around Cork and Dublin meet at the semi-final stage of the Championship, Mayo v Galway opening the double-header on Sunday, the first time that Croke Park will play host to the last four of the competition.
“It’s brilliant,” says O’Sullivan, whose sister Doireann succeeded her as Cork captain this year. “The other night at training one of the younger girls said to me ‘is the Croke Park pitch much bigger?’ I could not believe that. I had just taken for granted that everyone at this stage had played there, especially since the league double-headers came in, so it was a reminder that not everyone has had the chance.
“And the more who get the experience the better because it can be overwhelming. The sheer size of the place, even little things like going in on the bus, getting into the dressing room, running out on to the pitch, all those things if it’s your first time can be daunting.
“So, this opens up the chance for more counties to play there, to get that experience. Until now it was once a year at best.”
While she concedes there’s some truth in the old maxim about learning more from defeat than victory, the 28-year-old accountant has a notion that “it’s just something people say to you after losing to make you feel better”.
“But, yeah, you do learn alright. If we had won last year we probably wouldn’t have watched it back or done analysis on it, whereas we did in our team meeting in November. You try to take as much from it as you can, implement what we learnt as best we can. But no doubt Dublin will have improved too from last year.”
Something else she learnt last September was that it was time to ditch her superstitions.
“I always had my nails painted blue – but then we lost. So I didn’t paint them blue for the club final and we won. Not that having blue nails ever had anything to do with us winning,” she laughs, “but you can get these mad things into your head. So I’m definitely a lot less superstitious now.”
They won’t be blue on Sunday?
“No, I’m after giving up on the nails. I’ve abandoned the blue, I’ll be going natural.”
There has, she says, been an extra buzz in training ahead of the game, as is usually the case before any meeting with Dublin.
“When you’re playing the best team in Ireland in knock-out championship in Croke Park there’s definitely a spring in the step. We want to be the best team in Ireland again, but we’re under absolutely no illusions about the task in front of us. It’s mammoth altogether, but we’re going up there with more than hope. However it plays out, though, it should be a great watch – there’s always a bit of drama between us.”
* Mayo play Galway in the first of Sunday’s semi-finals (2pm), followed by the game between Dublin and Cork (3.45pm). Both will be shown live on TG4.