Cork defender is Phelan good about the added responsibility in a new-look backline

Cork defender is Phelan good about the added responsibility in a new-look backline

Roisin Phelan blocks down Yvonne McMonagle of Donegal. The 23-year-old can mark the top forwards. Picture: INPHO/Tom Beary

SATURDAY TG4 All-Ireland semi-final: Cork v Mayo, Kingspan Breffni Park, 4.45pm. Live on TG4. 

ROISIN PHELAN has a wise head up on her young shoulders.

At 23, this is her sixth season since getting a call-up to Eamonn Ryan's squad in the summer of 2012. Her performances as a Cork minor impressed him, but even more so her attitude and workrate. The fit was perfect. Now, the Aghada star is the second-longest serving defender - behind veteran Bríd Stack - in a team that is bidding to reach its seventh successive All-Ireland final, and she's one of the prime leaders in Ephie Fitzgerald's squad.

Dublin await the winners of Cork and Mayo in the final on September 24, and it was the 2011 showdown in fact between Cork and the Dubs that inspired Phelan to break onto the panel. Herself and a friend ventured to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, and in the stand Phelan's eyes watched every move Angela Walsh made at full-back. 

Walsh's performance earned her player of the match that day, but it also inspired one of the greatest up-and-coming defenders on Cork's production line to take the next step. Phelan returned to college this week, entering her fifth and final year in dentistry in UCC, and listening to her speak, you know her intelligence doesn't just shine on the pitch.

She's articulate, witty, and at ease giving interviews as she awaits a mammoth task in facing Mayo on Saturday in Brefni Park. It will be a repeat of the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final, and Phelan knows only too well how big an ask it is given Cork's rollercoaster season. 

Back-to-back defeats in the Munster Championship, solidified as much.

"To have gone from winning the league to not winning any matches in Munster, it did affect the team's confidence.  We looked in the mirror, rather than pointing the finger, and it was tough. 

"I'm not going to say it wasn't.  Then the eight-week lay-off didn't help. 

"We were really in our own little bubble, with no real competitive games so it was difficult to bounce back. But hearing people say that we were down and out, that wasn't nice to hear.

"There's a big step up between the league and championship and we just seemed to stay on the same level. We didn't push on as we usually would. But, during those eight weeks we focused on working together and on our communication, and being there for one another really. 

"It's paid off, and we may have taken the scenic route but we're where we want to be now."

Roisin Phelan blocks down Yvonne McMonagle of Donegal. Picture: INPHO/Tom Beary
Roisin Phelan blocks down Yvonne McMonagle of Donegal. Picture: INPHO/Tom Beary

Cork defeated Monaghan in the All-Ireland qualifier, before dispatching a much-fancied Galway team in the quarter-final two weeks ago. 

According to Phelan, the contest illustrated just how open this season's championship campaign has been.

"The only provincial winner left is Dublin and that just goes to show how strong the competition is.  Kerry, Donegal and Galway all won their provinces, but didn't come through, and then you had us who won a league but didn't win a provincial championship game, so it really has been very open."

Phelan put in a huge display at full-back, stepping up to the plate leadership wise when Stack was unavailable due to a hamstring injury. 

But, Phelan didn't realise she was the longest serving defender in the team, until the fact was pointed out to her.

"No, but you don't think about those things. It just adds pressure," she says matter-of-factly, with a hint of shyness. For All-Ireland quarter-final debuts, Emma (Spillane) and Melissa (Duggan) were flying it, and no one is more important than anyone else in the backline. 

"That's how you form a strong unit. That's how we look at it.  There's six of us, and if we don't play well, we lose, it's as simple as that.

"I'm there a while now and with more experience comes confidence to tell people to move here or there, but if Emma roars at me to do something, I'm going to do it.  I'll do it for her, and she'll do it for me, and that's how it's supposed to work, with everyone calling the shots.

"We're lucky too to have Martina (O'Brien) in goal behind us giving us great vocal direction. As a defender that's what you want.We give her a lot of slack for it because watching the games back on TV, all you hear is Martina, but I love it, because I know where I'm meant to be. 

"She doesn't shout for the sake of it, she gives us vital direction, and her positivity drives us on. She's a real asset to us."

Cork welcomed the return of All-Star defenders Brid Stack and Marie Ambrose to training recently following injury, but there will be no deep discussion prior to the showdown with Mayo.

"The message is always go out and do your own job.  Get on the ball as much as you can, get in as many blocks as you can, take the right option, and just listen. 

"Communication is a massive thing and if it breaks down, your opponents get in, so you have to trust yourself and those around you too to get the job done."

Sligo and Tyrone will contest the intermediate All-Ireland semi-final in the curtain-raiser in Kingspan Brefni Park at 3pm, with the winners taking Tipperary in the All-Ireland final. 

Tipp, who are coached by former Cork senior selector Shane Ronayne, and former All-Ireland-winning goalkeeper Elaine Harte, secured their place in the final having beaten Meath in last weekend's semi-final.

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