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'They wanted to get going 2 or 3 weeks after the All-Ireland. There was a bite in them'

‘Davy has said that the camogie players train harder than some of the teams he has had experience with,’ reveals Cork boss Matthew Twomey.

Matthew Twomey and Davy Fitzgerald on the line for Cork during their All-Ireland semi-final.
Matthew Twomey and Davy Fitzgerald on the line for Cork during their All-Ireland semi-final.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

MATTHEW TWOMEY MAKES no bones about it: he was a worried man on the Croke Park sideline as he watched his Cork side fail to score for the first 24 minutes of their All-Ireland camogie semi-final with Waterford two Saturdays ago.

Derek Lyons’ Déise, competing in the last four for the first time in 63 years — and seeking a place in their first final in 77 — appeared nerveless, fearless, and on their early form that particular Saturday maybe even peerless.

The Rebels introduced the talismanic Ashling Thompson — cleared of suspension on appeal at the 11th hour — on 22 minutes. They raised their first white flag on 25. At the break, they somehow trailed only by four: 0-7 to 0-3. They went on to close out the second half with eight unanswered scores, winning 0-15 to 0-10 to avoid a seismic shock and, more pertinently, book their place in this Sunday’s showpiece versus Kilkenny.

But after the smiles and sighs of relief came introspection.

“We had leaders on the field but we were wondering where the leadership was,” Twomey says of Cork’s painfully slow start. “We were panicking on the ball. We were making the wrong runs. We were coming too deep. You’re saying to yourself, ‘Who is out there to turn it around?’ That was the disappointing thing about it.”

ashling-thompson-and-amy-oconnor-celebrate Ashling Thompson and Amy O'Connor celebrate Cork's win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Manager Twomey, his players and their backroom team had a meeting last Tuesday night which lasted an hour and a half, although Twomey describes the conversation about the flatness of their performance three days prior as being a “frank” one.

“The players know what they have to do”, he says, “and that the semi-final was just not good enough. It’s a good situation for us if we want to put a positive twist on it.

“We put on a video. It was self-explanatory, really. We went through a lot of clips. We were just saying, ‘This is not good enough. And it’s not what we have worked at.’ That was the disappointing thing: we were working on doing things properly and we just went away from it.

“You can’t say it was inexperience because we were in last year’s All-Ireland final and in the National League final, so it was just frustrating. The players held their hands up. We lost the run of it. It’s back in our court now.

“The character was great. But when you look at it, if we go in against Kilkenny and not score for 20 to 25 minutes, we’d have a mammoth task ahead of us.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the game swung on Ashling Thompson’s availability. The four-time All-Ireland winner was cleared to play only on the morning of the game, her two-game suspension for a red card received after the full-time whistle of Cork’s round-robin win over Tipperary lifted hours before throw-in.

ashling-thompson-takes-to-the-field Ashling Thompson enters the fray. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The reality is that Cork looked tame without their two-time All Star midfielder, and such is her value to the team they might have been affected on some level by “all the hoo-haa”, as Twomey puts it, surrounding her suspension and subsequent appeals.

There were no ‘mights’ about her impact once she crossed the whitewash. There rarely are.

“Ashling has been unbelievable. I have been involved since 2014 and she has been unbelievable. She’s a leader, a warrior out on the field. When she came on, her presence alone drove us on. I think that in one of her first possessions, she gave the ball to Katrina Mackey and we got a score.

“You’re saying, ‘This is what we want to do.’ We got a bit of confidence from that.”

Twomey laments the protracted nature of the appeals process, and the reality that it can run as far as the day of such an important game. “We had the same last year with Orla Cronin going into the All-Ireland final,” he said. “We found out the night before [that Cronin was cleared to play]. It was tough going. It was very tough on Orla.

“Then we had other players lined up to play and we had to tell them on the Sunday they weren’t starting. It was the same this time with Ashling. We had to tell players…

It was only myself, Davy [Fitzgerald] and Ashling that knew the third appeal was going on. We only found out about the decision as we got off the train. I had been on the phone to Ashling the night before and I was saying it was probably best not to start her if the appeal went in our favour. She was very unsettled. When she came into the team meeting, she was drained. She was ashen. I said, ‘No way could she start.’ But I knew after watching her for a few minutes of the warm up that she’d be ok.

“It did unsettle us. There is no point in denying it.

“We knew there were a couple of indiscretions in the ruling. We questioned it. And we brought nothing new to the table for the second appeal. The frustration is that it could have been sorted out weeks ago. We shouldn’t have to wait until the last minute. We had brought nothing new to the table.”

cork-management-including-coach-davy-fitzgerald-and-ashling-thompson Cork's management team, including Twomey and Davy Fitz, with Ashling Thompson watching the Kilkenny-Galway semi-final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In the end, Thompson’s impact on the field was marked. By all accounts, so too has been Fitzgerald’s off it.

In what was a significant coup ahead of his first season as a senior inter-county manager, Twomey had a hands-on role in bringing the former Clare, Waterford and Wexford hurling manager into his fold as coach.

That the size of Fitzgerald’s personality precedes him, and that he’s both a bigger name than Twomey within Gaelic games and more experienced in inter-county management, were no skin off the new manager’s nose as he prepared to put his own stamp on a side taken to last year’s All-Ireland final by the great Paudie Murray.

“I was behind Paudie for a long time, and Kevin Murray was probably ahead of me last year. To me, ego means nothing,” Twomey says.

When we were beaten last year, we had an idea that Paudie was going to go. I had no intention of taking the job. It was the players that came to me.

“I saw their reaction after losing the All-Ireland final. They wanted to get going two or three weeks after. There was a bite in them. For me, getting a coach as good as Kevin Murray was very difficult.

I was able to have a chat with Anna Geary about the possibility of Davy coming on board. I met him. I’d have no problem being a number two or whatever. All I was concerned with was whether we could be better than we were last year. We’ll find out the answer to that question in the final.

“Davy has said that the camogie players train harder than some of the teams he has had experience with,” Twomey adds. “That’s a huge boost to the girls. These are the big steps. The more we see of [top hurling coaches working in camogie], the more the game will improve.

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“They are unbelievable athletes. What we put them through, I’m still in shock that they are able to do it. And they want more.”

davy-fitzgerald Davy Fitzgerald with the Cork players. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Twomey describes Cork versus Kilkenny as being his dream All-Ireland final. He admits to ‘following’ Kilkenny in hurling if they’re still there when Cork are eliminated from the championship. He loves everything The Cats are about, in both male and female codes.

“Last week they were under pressure at half-time, but they pulled it out of the bag,” he says of the Noresiders’ semi-final victory over defending champions Galway. “If you want to go toe-to-toe with them or bring a physicality to it, they’ll match you.

“It’s going to be very interesting. The respect goes both ways. It’s going to be a battle. Whoever gets a break of the ball, that could be the difference.

“We beat them last year. Linda Collins got a great score at the end. There was nothing between us. We played them in the league. There was nothing in it.

“They’ll have a bit of a bite about them. After the last day we’ll probably be going in as the underdogs, but we’ll relish the challenge.”

claire-phelan-and-brian-dowling-with-matthew-twomey-and-ashling-thompson Kilkenny’s Claire Phelan and manager Brian Dowling with Cork manager Matthew Twomey and Ashling Thompson. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Cork will travel up to Dublin on the Sunday morning. That it allows their players to sleep in their own beds on the eve of the final suits them anyway, Twomey says, but it also takes the edge off the total cost: both sides are rule-bound to stay in a Dublin hotel on the Sunday night because the winners will have The Sunday Game — but Cork have two panels travelling with the intermediates also competing in an All-Ireland decider with Galway. It all adds up.

And it’s all worth it, too, no matter what happens on the pitch this Sunday.

“There’s no point in wishing these days away,” Twomey says. “It’s about embracing them, waking up in the morning and realising you’re in an All-Ireland final.

“Don’t get caught up in the hype. Don’t get caught up with the tickets and all of that. We are sorting out all of that for them. Just go out and enjoy it. We have a media night — but it’s low-key. There’s no Open Days because of Covid. Just keeping everything low-key.

“We have the experience of last year. We know ourselves that if we bring our best to it, we’ll be hard to beat.”

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