Sonia O’Sullivan: Watching Cora Staunton be a real game changer Down Under

Seeing her playing Australian Rules was an eye-opener despite a broken nose

 

Melbourne’s Olympic Park Stadium has always been the spiritual home of athletics in Australia. That is until they pulled it down in 2012 and rebuilt it as an Australian Rules football ground, and it’s since been taken over by the Collingwood club as its state of the art training venue. 

At least they were kind enough to remember the good old days by adding a two-lane 500m running track to the perimeter of the football oval. This track is actually used regularly by the public at lunchtime, as it is just a short jog from the city. 

Meanwhile, Athletics Australia were moved to a new purpose-built facility out alongside the Albert Park lake, another good venue, although not quite the perfect location it once held in Olympic Park. 

The original Olympic Park Stadium was built as a warm-up and training track for the 1956 Olympics, staged just a short distance away at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and it’s here that Ronnie Delany would have limbered up before racing for the gold medal over 1,500m. 

This was also the first track where I ran when I came to Australia for the first time back in 1995. It was steeped in history. There were 13 world records broken on that track, a few by the legendary Ron Clarke – who was known to walk from his job in the city, lay down on the benches under the stand for a short sleep before changing into his Glenhuntly singlet and racing spikes and routinely tick off one more world record in the 1960s. Something tells me they were made of harder stuff back then. 

Bigger news

More recently the Collingwood women’s AFL team have been using the ground when playing their home games. It’s a wide open space with some grassy banks and it’s there I found myself last Sunday when Cora Staunton came to Melbourne with her new team, the Greater Western Sydney Giants. 

The last time I saw Cora play was in Croke Park last September, in the women’s All-Ireland football final, when her Mayo team were defeated by Dublin. And last time we actually met was running along the streets of Castlebar at the West of Ireland women’s mini marathon a few years ago. 

It was certainly bigger news in Ireland than in Australia when Cora first decided to give the professional set-up a go, in what is only the second season of women’s AFL. 

I came in early on my bike as I had arranged to meet Maria Walsh, the former Rose of Tralee, to do a quick interview for a documentary she is producing on the life of Cora. It’s a unique story, one of the most successful and longest serving footballers of her time, now taking up a new challenge and role in Australia, and one which may very well open up the door for more Irish women in the future. 

I also met a few friends who came along to support Cora in their GAA jerseys, with an Irish flag to show, to make sure there was no mistaking who we were supporting, Still I was a little surprised there weren’t a few more Irish supporters, given the quite large Irish population in the city. And also given that as for all women’s AFL games, the entry is free – and with that a nice afternoon to sit pitch-side, for round three of the season. 

There was a good buzz around the stadium, however, between the sponsor tents, a food village, and water slide to keep the kids entertained. When you’ve come to watch one player on a team it’s interesting how they stand out from the rest. Once I’d located Cora in her number 13 jersey, I made sure to keep track of her throughout the game. 

Cleaning and strapping

It’s a good hard game, and just before half-time Cora was knocked to the ground by a deliberate high tackle. It resulted in a broken nose, but you don’t play with your nose, or so she seemed to think, so with a bit of cleaning and strapping Cora was back on the pitch as if nothing had happened. Only this made her even visible now, with some big white tape around her head to keep her nose in place and allow her to play on. 

It ended with a 13-point victory for the Giants, their first win of the season. Afterwards I got to visit the team changing room, and one of the things their coach Al McConnell told me that it’s not just Cora’s playing skills which she is working hard to improve and perfect with the oval ball; it’s also her presence on the ground, in the changing room, and at training.

Cora Staunton is treated for her facial injury at Melbourne’s Olympic Park. Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images
Cora Staunton is treated for her facial injury at Melbourne’s Olympic Park. Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images

This, he said, is the greatest asset that she has brought to the club. Sunday actually marked McConnell’s first ever win as a senior coach, having briefly been with Fitzroy back in the 1990s, and it was clear that everyone at the Giants felt lucky to have Cora on the team.  

McConnell could also see beyond the stats; this will come in time. Experience, passion and desire to be the best you can be and give the best you can to a team is what Cora is all about, and this is felt by the other girls on the team. 

It’s this commitment and determination to play, knowing the importance of your presence on the field that drove Cora to play on and put aside the inevitable pain. Something tells me she is made of harder stuff and she scored three behinds to add to the winning score. 

Sweet victory

I was there as Cora came off the pitch to see her family and friends. It is an intimate time where the players are coming off the field tired, emotional, and the coaches and support staff all ready to take the next steps. Everyone had worked hard for it, but victory is sweet especially when it’s the first win of the season and suddenly the team back in the frame, with five more games to play and everything seems possible once again.

Cora also introduced me to the other coaches and the team staff that had made the trip down from Sydney; doctors, physios, nutritionist, psychologist, fitness trainers, kicking trainers, the works. I was whisked along as everyone went underground to the team room, a white board with the pre-game notes, the coach went through the board highlighting the positives and pointing out areas that could still be improved. 

Cora clearly wants to embrace the AFL and the oval ball and get better 

The team were all excited but listened carefully as Al was speaking, and mentioning the players that had stood out for him. Then they all got together and sang the team song and threw a few bottles of Gatorade over McConnell. By this time Cora was free of the bandage around her face. I asked her about the training and if it was all that different to Ireland. In reality she said, it was no more difficult, a similar level actually. The big difference was the professionalism and the recovery time. 

Cora clearly wants to embrace the AFL and the oval ball and get better. She talked about the extra training needed to get used to kicking the ball, to be the best she can be. 

In this environment everything is monitored and more is not always better but when you’ve trained all your life it’s hard to stop practising the skills, to kick the sweet spot, knowing there comes a time when you turn the corner and you don’t have to think about what you are trying to do anymore. It just comes naturally.

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