Getting up to the top flight is every team’s dream in any sport but staying up there can often prove a nightmare.
That’s the challenge for Waterford’s women’s footballers as the 2020 Lidl National Football Leagues begins this afternoon.
It’s the first time in 13 years the game’s former queens have featured in Division One, making this an historic but testing season for Ciaran Curran’s side.
The euphoria of last year’s Division Two final victory over Kerry has been replaced with pragmatism and, for survival advice, they don’t have far to look. Tipperary went up and stayed up last year. Manager Shane Ronayne, who also led Mourneabbey to their club two in a row, doesn’t sugar-coat the huge leap in standards.
“In Division Two we were getting away with things and not being punished. We were giving teams big leads but could come back from them because we were very fit and could keep going,” he admits.
Tipperary’s strategy was to target specific games for survival and they also used the league to hone the swashbuckling style that won another All-Ireland intermediate title.
“I think we were Division One’s highest scorers but we also conceded a lot,” continued Ronayne. “We went at it like ‘this is the way we’re gonna play in championship’ and we also targeted a few games to stay up. The Monaghan game was a key one for us.”
With no semi-finals this year (all four leagues will have straight finals) Ronayne predicts the early rounds will be particularly competitive while the latter may feature some dead rubbers. Tipp also learned another valuable lesson in the top tier last season.
“We created 31 chances against the Dubs last year and took just 10. They had 22 and took 15, they’re clinical,” he adds ahead of their tough opening round clash with the treble-winning All-Ireland champions tomorrow.
Dublin will be without a lot of big-name players and Tipperary are weakened themselves. Orla O’Dwyer has joined Aisling McCarthy in the AFLW ranks, stalwart Niamh Lonergan has retired and they’ve also lost midfielder Anna Rose Kennedy and Sarah Fryday (whom he’d persuaded to double-up this season) to torn cruciates.
Dual players are virtually extinct in men’s GAA and a dying breed in the women’s games but Waterford Caoimhe’s McGrath, 22, is doubling up for the second consecutive season, despite the increased demands of top tier football.
“I just couldn’t pick one! I tried weighing up the pros and cons of both but how do you pick one team and leave another team down?” said the dual star.
A study of camogie and football’s upcoming fixtures shows she’s already facing four possible clashes but Waterford’s respective managers (Ciaran Curran and Donal O’Rourke) combined well last year to help her manage the training load and such clashes and she’s happy to try to continue it.
“It is very challenging on the body,” the dual defender concedes. “It is possible to do both but where it’s at now commitment-wise you’re spreading yourself very thin.
A final-year physiotherapy student in UL, she is certainly not short of insight into the demands of Division One. The first day she walked into physio lectures four years ago she spotted a familiar face — Galway’s Louise Ward — and she shares a house with Cork’s Eimear Scally and Aisling Kelleher.
Sharing an elite lifestyle and winning O’Connor Cups and colleges All-Stars with them means McGrath is well primed for the challenges this spring.
“Last year was unreal. Winning the league final was one of our main goals because we knew were good enough. We’ve learnt as we’ve gone up the ranks but obviously the pace will be very different now. Losing Michelle Ryan (retired) leaves huge boots to fill,” she adds.
“It wasn’t just her football skills that were second to none, it was her intelligence, her composure, her maturity.”
Like Tipperary, Waterford have a tough opener; a trek to Corofin tomorrow to face the defending Division One champions and All-Ireland finalists Galway. But on such an historic day she thinks fondly of former mentors, like the late Mary Walsh in her own club (Abbeyside) and former county boss Pat Sullivan whose “work and huge commitment to us can’t go unmentioned.
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