At the recent 2016 Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Championships launch, President of the Camogie Association Catherine Neary said “We’re working with five high-profile Camogie ambassadors who explain what it takes to reach the top level and how a strong and healthy body and mind help players to achieve their full potential.”
The 2016 Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Championships sees reigning champions, Cork, in search of a three-in-a-row title and their 27th title overall which would move them to the top of the Roll of Honour.
Position: Centre Back
It is difficult to envision an upside to long-term injury, and after tearing her cruciate knee ligament for the second time in three years at just 20 years of age in 2014, Rebecca Hennelly certainly could not do so.
It was absolute devastation for a prodigious talent, pinpointed as a certain Camogie star almost from the time she picked up a hurley in Ardrahan.
A two-time All-Ireland winner at U16 level, Hennelly had been the shining light as Galway completed a Minor/U16 double in 2010, landing the injury-time free that earned the Tribeswomen a replay against Clare in the U18 decider before making no mistake second time around.
The ascent continued in rapid fashion and in 2011, Noel Finn named the recently-turned 17-year-old to make her debut at wing-forward in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Championship.
It is almost five years to the day now, the Thursday night before, that Hennelly went down to the Ardrahan pitch for a puck around. She was running in a straight line when the knee buckled beneath her.
There would be no championship on Saturday, or for some time. The road back was torturous and in hindsight, the rehab was hit-and-miss. She missed out on the long-awaited Senior All-Ireland in 2013 but was on the Intermediate team that completed a famous September double.
By 2014, she was flying again, having propelled Ardrahan to an All-Ireland Senior Club Camogie Final in March. She made her belated championship bow in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final against Clare the following August and held her spot for the Semi-Final, but Kilkenny proved too strong.
Disaster lay around the corner though and Hennelly’s knee collapsed once more in the Club Championship a few weeks later.
It would have been easy to hang up the boots after that but showing remarkable fortitude in the face of such adversity, she embarked on a disciplined regime that not only transformed her into a fitter, stronger and faster player, better equipped for the rigours of Camogie than ever before, but set her on a new career path.
So taken was Hennelly by the benefits of strength and conditioning that she is putting the finishing flourishes to setting up a gym in the large garage at the back of the family home.
There isn’t a name yet – the shortlist has been whittled down to just a couple of options now – but the premises is fully kitted out, the insurance was sorted this week and her many contacts within Camogie and the wider Gaelic games family have promised to support her.
Allied with having a first real run at a Senior Camogie campaign with Galway, five years later than initially expected, it all adds up to being the most exciting period of the Ardrahan woman’s life.
“The first time I did the cruciate I was fairly young” Hennelly recalls. “I just didn’t know what had to be done, what it was going to take. I didn’t do as much as I should have done before or after the operation.
“Coming back from the injury the second time, I put a lot of work in. I found it mentally challenging, wondering would I make it back, questioning myself. But I spent an awful lot of time in the gym and did so much work that I knew I’d make it back no problem.
“I came back at the end of last year and I was fitter than ever. This year is better again and that’s just completely down to the hard work. I did find it tough but I powered on.
“Every minute I had I was going to the gym, doing everything I could. I was working in a factory in Galway and it wasn’t where I wanted to see myself for the rest of my life. I got so into the gym; I love how it helped me not just physically and mentally as well, so I decided to do a course and eventually left my job.”
She is passionate about the benefits of strength and conditioning and is looking forward to the prospect of spreading a message, which being an 'Our Game, Your Game' ambassador also gives her the opportunity of doing, that strength and weights should not be dirty words for girls, assaulted as they are by body image stereotypes nowadays.
“A lot of girls think they’re going to be muscly like body builders but it’s not like that at all. Girls can’t build muscle like that unless they’re on steroids or something.
“The fitness it brings to your Camogie is unbelievable, the strength levels, breaking tackles, getting out of rucks, your speed work, your hurling, your striking – everything improves. It’s something every Camogie player should do, even to prevent injury.
“But even if you’re not playing a game, you just feel so good.”
Strength and conditioning programmes are a relatively recent phenomenon in Camogie says Hennelly, but the players have bought into it completely, combining a minimum of two nights a week with the collective pitch sessions. It should make the Hennelly Gym, under whatever moniker it operates, a popular destination indeed.
Now watch Rebecca Hennelly's 'Our Game, Your Game'
Launch Video: Rebecca Hennelly
Amy O'Connor (Cork)
Position: Full Forward
Club: St Vincent's Camogie Club (Cork)
Amy O’Connor was blessed with a rare talent that has seen her become a high achiever not just in sport, at elite level in both Camogie and soccer, but in her academic pursuits too.
Despite having just turned 20, there is a remarkable level-headedness about having won two Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Championships, played in a UEFA Under 19 European Championships Semi-Final and just as importantly in her view, done well enough in her Leaving Cert to enable her to flourish in UCC, where she is studying pharmacy.
Such a mindset is conducive to succeeding but so too is a driven work ethic, not to mention excellent time management.
The demands are such that O’Connor has had to call time on her international soccer career however, for the moment anyway. There are a number of reasons, but right at the top is a grá for Camogie.
“We were going to the European Finals with the Irish team and Paudie (Murray) rang me and said would I come up after Minor” says O’Connor of the first approach made to her by the Cork manager.
“I was doing my Leaving Cert. I would have been good at school, I paid a lot of my attention to school life, so I was studying a lot.
“I said that with that and going to the European Finals… I would love to be a part of it but I could understand if he didn’t want me to come in after missing all that training.
“I went training with them once and then I was off for a month with the Irish soccer team. When I came back, I was delighted when he asked me to training again.
“We got to the All-Ireland and then I was due to go to the World Student Games with the Irish team. Instead of going I decided to stay and play Camogie with Cork instead. So it kind of happened gradually.
“I suppose I just love Camogie. I still play soccer – I’m on a soccer scholarship with UCC – and I enjoy it. It’s just I took time off with the Irish team to play Camogie with Cork.”
She isn’t sure if she will ever return to the green jersey.
“It’s a tough one. I actually don’t know. It’s hard because I’m doing pharmacy in college. It’s not an easy course. It’s 9 to 6, Monday to Friday, it’s like a full-time job really. It’s not like you can go away for three weeks and play soccer in a random country around the world and come back then and be expected to know all that again. You miss too much with soccer.
“In my Leaving Cert year I missed 11 weeks of school just playing soccer, so I knew I wouldn’t have been able to do that. With Camogie, you’re in Ireland all the time.
“That was another real big factor (in choosing Camogie). I’d be very career-driven and being a professional footballer as a woman, you’re not going to earn a whole pile, when you could be studying and have a good job.”
Such practicality wouldn’t even allow O’Connor to be swayed by an offer to play in the United States. Being a home bird probably contributed to the call to stick around but she just couldn’t see a future in it, no matter how much fun it might appear.
Of course there are frustrations but as she knows from first-hand experience, the gender issue isn’t confined to Gaelic games.
The government’s commitment to providing €1 million in funding for the Camogie Association, LGFA and WGPA over the next two years is very welcome but there is a long road to travel.
“It would annoy you in some ways, the way people say the boys are putting in so much effort. Fair play to the Senior men’s teams, they deserve all the gear and all the cars and everything that they’re getting.
“But at the end of the day we’re probably putting in the exact same, six days a week, and we don’t get anything like that. But no-one seems to notice that.
“We’re just so used to it. The boys would train the same time as we’d train in CIT. They’re all going out in the same gear and we’re going out in whatever we have.”
And with the Republic of Ireland?
“It was good but at the same time, you were second-class citizens compared to the men again. It’s a female thing, an issue across sport.
“In soccer, professional footballers aren’t earning a fraction of the amount the men are earning. It’s the same across the board.”
So O’Connor is delighted to be a part of the Camogie Association’s 'Our Game Your Game' campaign, aiming to raise the profile of Camogie and awareness of the elite players’ dedication.
It is about being the best you can be and for O’Connor and her Cork team-mates, that has them chasing a third consecutive All-Ireland.
Now watch Amy O'Connor's 'Our Game, Your Game'
Launch Video: Amy O'Connor
Position: Centre Forward
Club: Naomh Uinsionn (St Vincent's GAA Club, Dublin)
Mark Pollock, Jamie Wall and Louise O’Hara are just some of the role models that have inspired Sarah O’Donovan as the 31-year-old pursues a return to the top tier of camogie with a different county and a team made up largely of players 10 years her junior.
It doesn’t take long chatting to O’Donovan to realise she is an open door to challenges.
An All-Ireland winner at senior, junior and minor level with Cork, she was captain of the Ireland team that competed in the European U19 soccer championships in 2002. She holds a law degree and covered All-Ireland finals in all the Gaelic games categories during a previous incarnation as a sports journalist.
An opportunity to compete in the nascent Women’s National League with Cork City brought the initial chapter of her camogie career to an end.
But a new job saw her link up with St Vincent’s in 2014 and having shone as they reached the county final, Shane O’Brien extended the invitation. It would be a longer-term project but she was up for it and her chief counsellor provided the green light.
“I felt very fresh but I asked my Dad (John) what did he think, because he’s the person you ring when you make those sorts of decisions. He said ‘What does your gut say?’” recalls O’Donovan.
And that was that.
It was a huge year for the Dubs, with the reduction of a 37-point margin against Cork in 2014, to five the following March, as good an illustration as any of progress. O’Donovan was one of two All-Star nominees from the squad, the other being her Vincent’s clubmate Ali Maguire.
If ever she even thinks of how difficult training might be, her job as engagement and communications leader for the Mark Pollock Trust quickly evaporates the self-pity. Pollock is the man who won two Commonwealth Games medals in rowing despite being blind and was the first blind man to race to the South Pole.
He suffered a catastrophic accident on July 2, six years ago, that left him paralysed. It was cruel but the Down adventurer was never likely to fold, just because he’d been dealt a bum hand.
He established the Mark Pollock Trust to raise funds aimed at spinal cord injury research and ultimately, at chasing down a cure for paralysis. The Run in the Dark international running series, of which O’Donovan is project manager, is at the centre of this fundraising.
Meanwhile, Pollock raises awareness by breaking down barriers for paralysed people. Right now, he is in training for the Giant’s Causeway Sportive on September 10 and is threatening to co-opt O’Donovan to the cause. She’s hoping she might be preparing for the Liberty Insurance Senior Championship final.
“While I’m getting up, he’s already in the gym. When you’re complaining your body is sore because you took a belt in training or a game, he’s somebody doing a much tougher day.
“Some evenings before training you’re thinking ‘This is a slog’ but he’s going ‘Get out and enjoy that’ and you go ‘Yeah, yeah I should, because I can’ and that’s a massive thing.
“He would put any man to shame in terms of his commitment levels to sport.
“I enjoy working for Mark because of what he has managed to do for the last six years. People forget he has only been paralysed for six years but he has created this massive movement. That’s a hugely positive thing.
“It also helps that he’s an incredibly witty, committed, driven character. It’s just a great job to be in.”
O’Donovan’s first brush with paralysis came via former Cork underage dual star Jamie Wall, a promising talent who was paralysed two years ago. She was visiting Wall in Beaumont when an email landed from an employment agency explaining that the Mark Pollock Trust were looking for someone just like her.
“There was a serendipity about it, though not necessarily a nice one. Jamie couldn’t believe that there could be such a connection. In terms of what Mark is doing, the research that he’s doing… for me, it was about having hope, that Jamie could have such close contacts.
“When I did the interview with Mark and he asked me what my motivation was, initially my motivation was that I could be a support to Jamie because I would be working in the exact arena where he needed support.”
So Pollock and Wall are inspirations but beneficiaries too. Dublin have profited from her presence as well. Sometimes O’Donovan wonders what the hell she is doing as she looks around at all the 20-year-olds but then she’ll see Louise O’Hara.
O’Hara is 37, one of just three Dublin players to win an All Star. More than 20 years in the fold, she remained committed despite the very worst days, despite starting her own business and even resuming her international netball career.
“Louise is stronger than she was last season. She is coming off a season playing netball and played for Ireland in the European Championships in Newcastle.
So she’s been combining it all for six months and is extremely fit. She’s just so strong. She’s a firm fixture still in the half-forward line.”
Knowing she has another six years “at least” gives her hope that she will be around when Dublin make it to the next level.
As O’Donovan has always believed, and is reminded of by those around her all the time, nothing is impossible.
Now watch Sarah O'Donovan's 'Our Game, Your Game' Launch Video: Sarah O'Donovan
The uncertainty in the aftermath of the Brexit shenanigans has had an impact on Ireland already, even if the full extent of what might result is a long way from being clear yet.
The financial markets responded negatively to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and as an employee of fund services company State Street, Denise Gaule might have been expected to be in a tizzy about the entire issue.
One doesn’t get the impression from talking to her that the 25-year-old does ‘tizzy’ however, but even if she might be predisposed in that manner, there are a couple of reasons why it isn’t happening now.
The first, most significant one is that she works in the regulatory department in Kilkenny and has been completely unaffected.
The other, is that she will be leaving the job next month to prepare for a complete change in direction, returning to college to study building services and engineering.
“My father has a company, Glencalan Engineering in Waterford” explained Gaule earlier this week.
“He was asking me to think about coming and doing it, so I decided it would be a nice change. I’m excited to go back as well. I’m looking forward to it.”
These are exciting times all around for Gaule then, with Kilkenny already having a National League pennant tucked away and having made the knockout stages of the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Championship.
It is 22 years since the O’Duffy Cup was bedecked in black and amber though. In the intervening period, Kilkenny have lost six Finals. Gaule and the majority of her teammates have been involved in the last three of those and getting her hand on an elusive medal is definitely the priority for this squad.
The legendary Ann Downey is back in the fold as manager, having provided Gaule with her Senior debut in 2009.
Downey was captain when Kilkenny last claimed ultimate honours in 1994 and is desperate for that stat to be wiped out. She has roped some of Camogie’s greatest – her sister Angela and former teammate Breda Holmes - in as she attempts to cover all the bases.
A tough operator on the pitch, Downey doesn’t hold back off it either.
“You wouldn’t get away with slacking off with Ann. She wouldn’t be shy in telling you anything but at least you know where you stand. You’d prefer that from someone not giving you any bit of feedback.
“She wants it for us so much, as much as we want it for ourselves. She has Angela in helping us out and Breda Holmes… between them they have buckets of medals and it’s great.”
When they lost the All-Ireland seven years ago, everyone thought given their youth, that it would only be a matter of time before they would cross the line.
“I suppose we did ourselves. But we’re still young. Most of the panel is around 25. We’re more experienced. It’s a long time without winning but we’ll keep plugging away.”