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Giant ambitions: Bríd Stack, Cora Staunton and the ties that bind

‘They were the best people to have by my side during it all. I couldn’t have done it without them.’

Cora Bríd Staunton and Stack with Stack's son, Cárthach Óg.

LAST APRIL, GWS Giants head coach Alan McConnell spent his offseason running sessions for his Irish crew. They are four strong. Two team-mates. The partner. A son. One unit.

The rest of the AFLW squad had their own post-tournament programs. Their AFL group had just started their own campaign and were preoccupied with that. This group existed on their own plain. 2021’s primary lesson was that the ecosystem around will constantly churn; you can’t become preoccupied with any of it. Control the controllables. Their primary concern was and is caring for and competing with each other.

Hours spent on the oval at Olympic Park. Far away from Sydney’s stereotype of sun and sand. GWS is stationed out west. Way west. Between training and the city’s pervasive traffic, opportunities to travel towards the eastern suburbs are seldom. Even the god-crafted harbor, where scuttling ferries traverse thousands of inlets and headlands, can be a trek.

The Giants are a new club, created by the AFL in 2012 in a bid to break the rugby league stranglehold on New South Wales. As such, they are an often-maligned club. The perception in places is of a favorably treated outfit. Bolstered by draft picks, assisted by the hierarchy. A manufactured club.

Part of the league, with no tradition. In Sydney, without the conventional perks. In the bubble, but outside of it.

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That has been the story of the Irish in Australian Rules. A halfway house, not native nor totally foreign. Bríd Stack and Cora Staunton know that. They also know their club, every morsel of it. Endless resources at their fingertips. Podiatrists and dentists. Fitted gumshields and customized sports bras with GPS monitors. All provided and accounted for.

Professional contracts? They’d do this for free. Questions about where it goes next and how much of it all is applicable back home are debatable, but to focus on that would be to overlook the cornerstone of it all; as an experience it is simply sensational. A world that only ever existed lightyears away for the majority of their careers, beyond the realms of attainable.

And yet, all of that is only frills and bows. They regard this place as a garland, and it is the people that are the jewels. When Bríd, her husband Cárthach and son Cárthach Óg went into quarantine upon their return earlier this year, McConnell had a crate of toys delivered to help pass the time.

When Cora Staunton broke her leg, then-S&C coach Simone Freeman spent four hours a day, four days a week rehabbing with her. And don’t even get them started on Head of Women’s Football, Briana Harvey. Perception be damned. Olympic Park is a luxury home; the Giants are family.

“Al sees the importance of investing in people,” Stack says. “You want to play for him. He is unique. He has a phenomenal right-hand woman too in Briana. She has a similar mindset. Just a proactive person. A doer.”

It was working with McConnell after the end of last season that restoked the fire which brought Stack to Australia in the first place. The four of them training together with their coach overseeing. They practiced how to fall and how to protect themselves. Trained torps and handballs. Kicked and cursed like an All-Ireland final was on the line. It was the happiest period of Bríd Stack’s AFL career. So far anyway.

Now they sit sheltered in a café as the rain teems down outside. Even Australia’s marketable climate has been denied. La Nina, a wet weather phenomenon that causes more rainfall and cooler temperatures, brought one of the wettest Novembers on record and December has been similar.

This is not an interview with one, or even the duo. Four contribute. One for all.

And there is no doubt who the star of the show is.

“Can you say hi to Maurice?” Stack asks of her two-year-old son, Ógie.

“Hi to Maurice!”

Preseason is at an end and the 2022 competition looms large. On Sunday, January 9, GWS play Gold Coast in their opening game. With any luck, it includes a debut for Stack. This wasn’t strictly part of the plan. None of 2021 was. It is a year since she suffered a stable fracture of the C7 vertebrae in a snap collision during a pre-season game against Adelaide. That ruled her out for the year. 2022 is a second bite.

screenshot-2021-03-26-at-13-33-15 Stack and Cárthach Óg at her return to training, just eight weeks after suffering her neck injury. Source: Bríd Stack

“I have regrets from last year, of course,” she explains with a telling sigh. “In my head I always thought it was just one year, give it a crack and when it didn’t go to plan it was very disappointing and upsetting for everyone at home.

“Then the opportunity was afforded to me for another go. I was chatting to Cora and Cárthach, knowing she was coming out again, there was another support system. Cárthach was on board and Mom and Dad were more supportive of it.

“I had a massive desire to come out and play and hopefully I can get a debut. You can only learn so much on the sidelines. I’ve learned more in the last few weeks playing here than I did all last season. You can be watching all day long, but until you are in it, playing and taking hits, that is when it feels real.”

Staunton was amongst the first to console Bríd on the pitch. The Mayo woman was heavily involved in recruiting another Irish star in the first place. Does that bring with it a sense of responsibility to see her succeed?

“Is responsibility the right word? Definitely not,” she scoffs, before softening. “You want to see her succeed. What she went through last year, the upset. It was difficult last year; it is not until you get time to sit back and assess.

“A teammate dying. Coming out late and quarantining, coming out of quarantine on Christmas day. Covid was raging in Sydney, so we were on the road. Not getting here until February, being on the road for eight weeks. Living out of a suitcase. As I put it all together and sit back when the season is over, you realise how much it affected you.

“I can still remember the feeling on that day in January… I felt some responsibility then when that happened. There was a period of time when we thought it would be more serious. When she goes through rehab and you see what that looks like, you want to see her succeed because of the work and sacrifice, but also because I saw a glimpse in that practice match of what she could do.

“That was really exciting and then that was taken away for the season. It was so disappointing. How she has progressed on the field in the last few weeks is just really exciting. Al is really looking forward to the season ahead, finally getting to play games. Preseason is great and all that but getting out to play is the buzz. I can’t wait to do that together.”

From stage right, enter Ógie. So far, he has provided an enamoring soundtrack as he mock converses on the phone with friends from around the globe. “Flat out talking,” laughs Stack. “He’s actually our agent!”

Cora takes charge and creates a challenge to pass some time.

“Can you catch the rain?” Gently encouraging the child to run to the door, reach out and clasp the falling droplets and bringing them back to the table.

aflw-giants-cats Cora Staunton is entering her sixth season with the GWS Giants. Source: AAP/PA Images

A brief glimpse behind the iron curtain. It is no secret that Cora Staunton is sustained by a maniac intensity. Striving, endlessly striving. From the outside she may cut a relentless, unflappable sort of figure. Yet like us all there are blemishes in the veneer. That intensity is solely reserved for the field.

Such combativeness is both a blessing and a curse. During training the previous day, McConnell found Cora with his scope and let fire. They were running forward drills. Balls kept fumbling and her frustration kept bubbling. Eventually it spilled over.

McConnell grilled her for it. Their forward group is one of the youngest in the competition. Staunton must set an example. She also understood it was a double-edged admonishment.

“I can take that too. We will probably have a conversation on the phone again to get my point across,” she says with a smirk. “I know he uses me as a someone who can take it and you can’t go hard on younger ones.”

This will be Staunton’s sixth year in Australia. She recently turned 40, continuing to defy time with preposterous performances. In 2021 the Mayo forward was named in the AFLW team of the year. Absurdly, it is not a tale of maintaining but improving. In 2019, she scored six goals. In 2020, it was seven. In 2021, her total was 10.

27 years of elite sport. How are they still doing this? More importantly, why?

“There are times when it is hard. I suppose you get a passion for a place and a club. I thought there would be nothing else like playing for Carnacon, I wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else. It becomes infectious. It is a people and a place.

“Al is a character; Bríd can talk about that. Eamonn Ryan was the same. There aren’t many coaches you come across and have such a strong relationship with. At times you are playing for them rather than yourself, you want them to have success.

“From the minute I came to the Giants and met him at the airport, not knowing what the man looked like, I felt an onus, a desire to do well for him. That is rare. I found it in club football. I found it in Mayo in the period Finbar [Egan] was there. We still speak 20 years on. I don’t know what the word is for Al.

“I suppose there is definitely an emotional connection. That is why you try make your decision about whether or not you’ll return from home and often you aren’t afforded that chance.

“When you remove yourself from it, it is probably a bit easier. In the period before you go home, in that signing period, there was a little pressure on us. They try to say there is not, but there is. It is not that they sit you down, but it can get to that stage. It is comments and messages here and there.

“Stacky not getting her debut and thinking of coming back, that adds to it. I have a lot of strong friends here who I didn’t expect. I thought I’d be here a year. Now I feel a huge part of the club.

“I don’t want to play sport and be a bit part player. If I ever thought I couldn’t reach the standard… I never want to be on a team for merit or my name. We are still training as hard as the 19-year-olds, even harder. I am still trying to make sure a 19-year-old isn’t beating me in a sprint…”

With a knowing laugh, Bríd immediately interjects: “And they don’t!”

“I’m sure they do,” Staunton chuckles.

“If you are physically and mentally able, thankfully I am. I remember talking to Al and saying, I do not ever want to be on this team because you brought me from Ireland and feel you have to play me. I want to be there on merit. The group know that now. It is all about action for us. Just do it on the training track. They try to slow us down and do less, we always want more.”

cora-staunton-with-brid-stack Stack and Staunton do battle in the 2016 Division 1 Football League final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

In some ways, her success has set a benchmark for Stack. Same as it ever was. A vivid memory comes to mind from the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final. Up-and-coming Cork versus top of the mountain Mayo. “They were the queen pins.”

That day was do or die. “Juliet kicked the winner; it was like we won the World Cup. A pure shitty day, determined to finally beat them. There was a pile-on after the final whistle and everything. Everyone lost the head.”

The Cork woman has been holding onto that five-week stint of offseason training as a highlight. To be frank, there isn’t much competition. One frighteningly brief parting of dark clouds. It was sandwiched between months of neck rehab. As things started to look up, she smashed her fingers and broke two. All the while weighing up a contract offer.

“I came home and there was a slowdown. Got back to work, training. A few doubts came then. But there was something firing in me the whole time. I just wanted to prove to myself more than anyone else. I wanted to prove I was able for this.”

She speaks without melodrama or vengeance and a resolve that is obvious. There are many external reasons to be motivated. In the aftermath of her injury, there was commentary aplenty about the tackle. Little of that mud stuck but she saw it nevertheless. Live ammunition ideal in the corner. Not employed, just acknowledged.

“It is more so internally. I want to impress Al, Cora and Cárthach. If I can get that, I’d be happy. The way things went in the tribunal, I do want to prove that I am capable of doing this and I deserve to be here.

“I needed them. Cárthach and Cora went through long-term injuries themselves. They were the best people to have by my side during it all. I couldn’t have done it without them. I had constant belief thanks to them encouraging me. Obviously, you have down days. But the two of them actually understood those down days more than anyone else. To have them in the club, it was so important for me.

“Nic [Barr] in the club is going through it at the moment, she is really relying on Cora. To keep pushing her and challenging her to get on the field. That comes from surrounding herself with good people.

“Last year was a shitshow, there is no other word for it. Until I went home and reflected on it, I nearly had a breakdown at home in May. That was the first time I reflected on it all. With him being so small,” she nods towards Ógie, now lurching on the edge of the table…

“Careful!” urges Cora.

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“He was so reliant on myself and Cárthach,” Bríd says with a nod and a motherly glance. “He had no routine because we were moving so much. This year, physically I went home and made sure my neck rehab was done to the letter of the law.

“Then I came back out and in the first week or two, I struggled with it so much. I can’t do this. I am fumbling. My expectation was so high but once I parked that, I felt more comfortable. It is about going back to my instinct. Go back and rely on that, something I’ve done for 15 or 20 years back home. I do have an intrinsic motivation to make my debut. I felt so welcomed and looked after, that I want to give back as much as I can.

“The groundwork Alan put in was unbelievable. When I came back this year, I had more of a ‘fuck it’ mindset. This is it. This is what I came back to do. Let’s go. The first week or two, I put myself under huge pressure to be mistake free and be brilliant. I had a year of watching so I should be good. I kept messing up fumbling, taking my eye of it. It was all about building that confidence up again.”

Ógie returns with a handful of rain, cradled gently for fear it may vanish. Staunton switches and laughs. For the last few minutes, she has been nodding, knowingly. GWS knew what they were getting. The fire that fuels them both is frightening similar.

So, who is she trying to impress?

“I am not trying impress anyone,” Staunton explains, before reconsidering the question.

“I am trying to impress it on the club. I really want them to get better. In my time here, consistency has waned hugely. I want them to be in the finals every year. Of course, you have an internal drive to yourself and make yourself better, I still think I can get better. This is a new game. My real drive is to make the club consistent. Hopefully finals every year becomes a given.

“You want the standards to be lifted, for the younger playing group to get mentally stronger.

“They look at us differently because we are different. The Irish have a different mentality. It took me a while to realise that, and it took them a while too. I think some players are starting to buy into that Irish mentality. They see we are crazy; we like to train hard. Both of us had serious injuries, we attacked it.

“There is a player we are both very close to who is currently injured. The way she attacked rehab; I don’t like saying it but that probably was down to what we have done. ‘Monkey see, monkey do.’ I don’t like that phrase, but I think it applies here.

“Last year they thought Stacky was crazy. I know they thought I was crazy.”

And they didn’t see the half of it. In the aftermath of Stack’s injury, no stone was left unturned in her bid to recover. There was nerve-rackingly early removal of neck braces and Chinese herbal medicine experimentation.

When Staunton broke her leg in 2019, she was prescribed a hearty list of painkillers. As a side effect, they killed her energy and her appetite. Impractical when it came to her aim of making a speedy recovery. She deemed them more of a hindrance than a help and decided to wean off. After a week they were discarded entirely.

She is in the leadership group and a focal point of their forward line. That is a very different position compared to her upbringing. It is about structures and systems. The ball might only come in four or five times, the delivery isn’t a concern. Have patience, apply pressure, be precise when a rare opportunity arises.

They have huge responsibility here. McConnell often consults them about offseason signings and tactical considerations. Make no mistake, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We aren’t kept in the dark,” Staunton explains. “He wants input and we like to give input whether he likes it or not! He’d certainly tell you that.

“He is receptive to information. Myself, Bríd, Cárthach and Al do an individual session each week anyway. It might be 45 minutes training and 15 talking.”

“He does listen though,” stresses Cárthach.

For much of these two hours he has occupied his own unique position. Silent. Supportive. And seeing. Seeing everything. The sacrifices and the commentary. The formation of ideas and their implantation. Initially while in the club, he fervently consumed information, eager to see what he could being back to Cork and Newcestown. Yet thanks to a lack of time and resources, much of it just does not fit. What does apply are the human dynamics. How they are treated.

“I’d often notice, he will come back to you a week later or so when he has considered it. I really like that about him. He takes what you say on board.”

They are a team within a team. How has Bríd enjoyed balancing both of hers?

“Having started a family, they are two separate feelings. There is nothing like the thrill you get from sport and the two minutes after an All-Ireland final, but nothing will ever compare to having a family. I can look at the two with such fondness now…”

A few hours later, she sends a follow up message. It is not just nice to be able to do both. In fact, they compliment each other.

“I meant to say, while both amazing in their own right, I just wanted to add how grateful I feel to be able to marry the two of them the last two years. This opportunity wouldn’t be the same without the two lads with me. It feels very special to have Ógie watch his mom play sport, let alone professional sport. Memories made that will last a lifetime.

“I’m definitely doing this to prove to myself more so than anyone else I’m capable. There were a lot of opinions about what happened last year but the only ones that I would take heed of are Cárthach, Alan and Cora’s.”

As they bid farewell, Ógie starts to sing a tune that scarcely resembles Humpty Dumpty. Laughing together, the band head away towards a brighter 2022, united by the same goal of a more enjoyable season, filled with debuts and finals, less stress, more success. Collective success. Four for one.

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Maurice Brosnan

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