Cork v Meath again would be ‘extra sweet’

It’s 2016 since Cork were last crowned TG4 All-Ireland senior football champions. That victory was an 11th success in 12 years for the Rebel County.

Under the late Eamon Ryan and then Ephie Fitzgerald, the side were masters of all they surveyed; totally dominant. Six years on and Cork are keen to dine at the top table again. On Sunday next, they begin their 2022 campaign against Waterford in the Munster semi-final. For Cork skipper Máire O’Callaghan, preparations have gone well since the conclusion of the league, a competition where the Munster did not pull up too many trees.

“Look, it wasn’t a great league campaign for us at all,” she said. Then again the spring campaign wasn’t the be-all and end-all for the Munster outfit, as O’Callaghan explained: “I suppose we were never starting the year off too focused on the league.

“The league is always a good time to try new players and new positions and things like that, so that was always what we wanted to get out of the league. While we did crash out a bit sooner than we were hoping, I still think we were probably a bit unlucky with the group we got, the two All-Ireland finalists (Meath and Dublin) away in the first two games, so it was always going to be a tough start for us.

O’Callaghan at the #CommunityIncludesEveryone campaign launch at Croke Park

“We weren’t aiming too hard to get to a league final, we’ve got to the latter stages of it before and it hasn’t really benefited us that much in the championship. It’s great to get competitive games, I know, but we’ve got six weeks of really good training together as well, which has been fantastic, so we can’t really complain about the preparation we’ve had.”

Last year Cork lost out to eventual All-Ireland winner Meath at the last-four stage. Leading by seven points with five minutes left of normal time, the Munster outfit looked on course to book a final berth, only for the Royals to plunder 2-01 in the time remaining to force extra-time. And Eamonn Murray’s charges pushed on from there to secure a famous win.

O’Callaghan would relish another crack off Meath, en route, she hopes, to ending a six-year wait.

“I think we’re never short of motivation at the start of every year. The aim is to get to the All-Ireland final and win the Brendan Martin Cup, and if we meet Meath along the way, then that would make a bit extra sweet I suppose to get some revenge. I would back us to be able to go toe-to-toe with them anyway and then whatever happens then after that.

“We were really disappointed after last year’s defeat and you have to use that the right way and it drives you on again to want to not feel like that again.

“That said, a lot of teams will be going for the All-Ireland this year.

“The way Meath come out of nowhere last year has really blown open the championship, and other counties are saying ‘why can’t it be us that breaks the status quo?’

“I think it will be a really interesting championship to see how it goes. There are a lot of teams performing really well, and the league final between Donegal and Meath was a cracking game, and a lot of teams are really finding their form coming into 2022.”

O’Shea of Cork in action against Jennifer Dunne of Dublin during this year’s league

Cork, however, will have to plan without All-Star defender Erika O’Shea, who is set for a move to the AFLW. While accepting that O’Shea’s departure is a blow for Cork, O’Callaghan believes her former colleague will thrive Down Under.

“Erika’s a fantastic player. She’s a huge loss. She’s so fast and fit, she’s such an athlete. She is a huge loss, we support her 100% on her move there but we do have a strong panel and we have a lot of other players who are dying to get a chance as well. While she is a massive loss, I have no fear that someone else will step in and fill her place, absolutely 100%.

“How fit she is and how fast she is, that will be a huge benefit to her in Australia. She could actually run rings around someone. She’s such an athlete. In my eyes, there’s absolutely no way she won’t be successful over there. She’s got such good skills there to work with and she’s very easy to coach, so I think she’ll definitely get on really well over there.”

O’Shea is following a number of other Irish players who have made the switch to the professional game in Australia. For O’Callaghan, it’s not something she has contemplated doing. Playing for Cork and her club Moureabbey, along with her job in in BioMarin, a pharmaceutical place in Ringaskiddy, keeps her more than occupied.

O’Callaghan in the colours of Mourneabbey

When asked whether more from these shores will be tempted by longer playing contracts Down Under, the Rebels skipper did point out an option that may no longer be there.

“The AFL season is changing, it’s longer than it was. It was about six months [with pre-season] and it’s going to be longer now. I feel like before we might have been in more danger of people leaving when you could go away and come back for the championship, but now that’s not really going to be an option. I actually think it might deter players from our camp from going, but I’m not sure how that would present itself in other teams really.

“I think when you’re competing well for the All-Ireland championship, whoever wants to be around will still be around. That choice has been taken away from them kind of, playing AFL and playing inter-county, with it being a longer season for the AFL.

“In a few years with the prospect of fully professional career in AFLW I do think it will be a challenge for the LGFA and the Camogie Association to keep players playing in Ireland.

“I’m guessing it will probably be the counties that are struggling a bit to compete at the latter end of the championship. It would probably be an easier decision for those players to step away than it is for a team that are hoping to get to the later stages of the All-Ireland.”

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Krzysztof Stanowicz

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