Nicola Ward would be forgiven for having quite enjoyed the past six months without competitive Gaelic football because it made life a whole lot less complicated.
At least during that spell her sole commitment was to her job as a nurse in Crumlin Children's Hospital, but now she is on the road again, back and forth to Galway three times a week for training, while having to ensure her roster does not clash with the string of National League and Championship games in the months ahead.
“I’m just delighted to be back,” she says, and after the few years she has endured, she means it with a passion.
It was around this time last year that she finally began running again six months after surgery to reattach damaged knee cartilage, an injury she sustained playing for Kilkerrin-Clonberne in the November 2019 All-Ireland senior club final.
For Ward it was an especially soul-destroying injury because she had suffered a similar one to the same knee just the year before that also put her out of action for six months.
So when she takes to the field in MacHale Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo, on Saturday evening for the opening match of her county's National League campaign, it will be the first time since 2018 that she will have been fit for the start of the competition.
“Touch wood, that’s all behind me,” she says, “I think this year is probably the first that I haven’t really felt any niggles in the knee. I would still be really conscious of it and strengthening it up, but it is behind me, yeah.
“The last two years I was always coming in in the latter end. I would have missed out on two league seasons, but I’ve been training from the start for this one and, thankfully, all is going well. Hopefully that will stand to me for the rest of the year.”
That first day back running last year was the same day she started working in Crumlin, having completed her nursing degree in UCD. That, in the times that are in it, presented its own challenges, although she says while Crumlin did not entirely escape, “we wouldn’t have got the Covid situation as bad as all the general hospitals”.
“At the minute the situation has eased, although I suppose we’re still apprehensive about it. But now there’s the cyber attack, so things have got a bit busier with that, not being able to use our electronic systems.” When it rains, it often pours.
“I have to work two weekends a month, so there’s definitely a lot of planning involved. I get my roster a month ahead, so I work on that to try and make everything fit. But I’m juggling it well so far, and with the shortened season this year it’s a bit easier, I don’t have nine months of the year to work with, it’s just May to September.”
And it's a fresh start for Galway this year after Gerry Fahy was appointed successor to Tim Rabbitt as manager. Among his backroom staff is Ward's Kilkerrin-Clonberne club-mate Annette Clarke who captained the county to their only senior All-Ireland triumph back in 2004 when Fahy's brother PJ was manager.
“It’s been so enjoyable so far,” says Ward. “Annette walked up the steps of the Hogan Stand, so she can definitely bring a lot to this team, and has done already. And Gerry opened up trials to the county at the start of the year and we had over 100 girls in, which is very positive from a Galway perspective.
“We have a good lot of minors in as well with us. They’re bringing loads of enthusiasm, and they’re challenging the older girls – even though they’re not too old! But at 24 years of age I’m finding myself now as one of the more experienced players having been there for the last seven years.”
If Galway hoped to ease themselves into their League campaign, the fixture list presented them with an opening game against, of all people, Mayo, ensuring, says Ward, they’ll need to start “with all guns blazing”.
While Galway reached the All-Ireland semi-finals last time around, losing to Cork amidst all the controversy about the late change of venue from Parnell Park to Croke Park, Mayo suffered a disappointing exit at the hands of Armagh in the previous round.
It's been all change for the county since, though, Michael Moyles replacing Peter Leahy as manager and inviting all 12 players, eight from Carnacon, to return to the panel after their bitter dispute with Leahy resulted in them walking away.
While the star name of that group, Cora Staunton, has very emphatically stated that her "Mayo days are done", at least four returning Carnacon players could feature for the county in the new campaign, among them the vastly experienced midfielder Fiona McHale who hasn't played for her county since 2018.
They'll be an interesting watch, Moyles having admitted to The 42's Emma Duffy that "there are a lot of undercurrents going on there" between the group who stayed loyal to Leahy and those who decided they couldn't play for him, but have now returned.
For her part McHale, who thought her Mayo career was over, has saluted Moyles’ brand of management.
“It’s been well documented that I just didn’t want to be part of that environment,” she said to the Mayo News of the Leahy regime, “but I believe that the team environment I have now is really approachable, it’s one that asks us for a lot of our feedback and a lot of our input as well.”
Mayo will be without Aileen Gilroy this year, the midfielder opting to take time out after her stint in Aussie Rules with North Melbourne, while Sarah Rowe is recovering from shoulder surgery after her season with Collingwood.
Ward, an All- Star winner along with her twin sister Louise in 2019, is savouring the challenge, even if she doesn’t know quite what to expect from the 2021 version of Mayo.
“Like ourselves they have new management, a new set-up. I’ve heard they’ve new players in and a few old players back, but we’re excited, we’re relishing the challenge. It’s always a good battle between the two of us, we’ve had a great rivalry down through the years. It’s been six months since we played football, so everyone is really excited. And no better match to start off with.”