IF there’s a defining characteristic that links all great sporting teams, away from the obvious places of genuine star quality and serious management of course, it must be this proper hatred of losing that runs through everything they do.
A true hatred that presents itself as a real love of winning, and it was possible to spot that last Sunday afternoon in Croke Park, basically throughout the entire All-Ireland camogie final. There was a remarkable hunger to everything Cork did, from the savage intensity of the work-rate to the conviction in the game-plan.
There was something in the explosion at the final whistle that told the story of a team that now has three All-Irelands in four seasons but managed to play with the sort of edge you’d imagine Mayo footballers will play with this weekend, like a team that hadn’t won anything for decades.
In a sporting environment where we can sometimes be too quick to make a call on legacies, it actually feels like we’ve underestimated the credits here with this Cork camogie group, that we’re only realising now the brilliance of a group of players that are defining an era and the excellence of the management of Paudie Murray to find fresh motivations to perform and new ways to take on an beat challenges.
It was a triumph for small details, even if there were conspicuous items in tandem. The reveal of Gemma O’Connor starting and her influence as the heart and head of the team, Libby Coppinger’s ability to move back to defence, Ashling Thompson’s energy and sense for being in the right area to make tackles and collisions happen, were all clearly pronounced factors.
Cork just generally being able to get several bodies in the vicinity of every Kilkenny player in possession almost every single time so they were really rarely allowed space to do what they wanted on the ball was another readily identifiable note. Yet there were standout moments.
Julia White’s match-winner seemed to signify all the gumption and attitude of the team. White’s barely played in two years because of injury and still when the game was deep in that time where everyone expected a replay, she managed to locate a do-anything-not-to-lose moment and then follow up with a do-anything-to-win moment.
With the game level, Kilkenny’s sub Jenny Reddy managed to work a little space on her right side about 50 metres from goal and just as you expected her to shoot or at least find a pass, White hustled back to shut off the space, force Reddy to turn and Cork won back possession. Seconds later, Julia White tore onto a pass with All-Ireland winning kind of speed, broke a tackle and changed direction and then got off a shot with Kilkenny jerseys closing in.
Or take Orla Cronin, player of the match with three points from play and an overall influence on the game at just twenty-two years old, a perfect illustration of the evolution and improvement that’s gone on in this Cork team. Cronin has always had the skills - her underage coach Dermot Curtin has testified to that – and she was in the panel in 2014, won an All-Ireland as a starter in 2015. She had one point from two previous finals though and had been sort of swallowed up in last year’s like everyone else.
Last Sunday her movement and awareness of space was top class. She drifted back to help and had the mentality for the work-rate necessary to not give Kilkenny an inch in that middle third. She occupied the Kilkenny centre-back Ann Dalton and used the open areas of the field perfectly when Cork were on the attack.
Her first point came from a Cork counter, a hopping ball down the left wing where she turned inside and outside before settling on a shot off her right (inside). Her second point was another pass down the left wing into spaces, which she fumbled before hitting a really lovely score off her left on the run. Third point she presented as an option for a pullback from the end-line, feinted left and then cut inside to hit off the right, a full showcase of her skills as a forward on the toughest day to produce that sort of technical display.
We remember an interview with Paudie Murray back around the end of 2015 where he referenced having to trust the likes of Cronin, to throw them into championship to allow them learn even if the first game or two don’t work exactly.
Or in his own words at the time: “We had to be patient and give the new girls a chance. If we went out in the first championship game and Orla Cronin is getting cleaned at centre-forward, the worst thing you could do is take Orla Cronin off. If you leave her on she has to either figure her way out of it or continue to allow herself be cleaned.”
That kind of thinking has made Cronin a leader and it’s only one little example in the list of small details that Paudie Murray has brought to the table and is really turning this into one of the most noteworthy management jobs of the past number of years.
The big picture factor is no less remarkable or impressive. When Orla Cronin started playing a little over a decade ago with St Mary’s it was a handful of girls joining in with the boys or scraping around for enough numbers for games and if the mention on the Sunday Game referenced the absence of West Cork in Cork camogie, you can imagine the level of interest now.
Libby Coppinger is blazing a trail in her area.
The Cork ladies football team of the last 12/13 years more or less completely changed the game itself, a once-in-a-lifetime mix that raised interest and standards and made ladies footballers stars to try and emulate and made it impossible for any sportspeople to ignore just how decent ladies football could be.
This Cork camogie team journey has something similar, a modern leaning to the players and the people involved and the way they play that would make it difficult for any young girls watching to not want to be a part of.
This Cork side edge towards greatness in many different ways.