Dublin: 8°C Friday 22 October 2021
Advertisement

Cora Staunton keeps getting better. How?

The Mayo great will turn 40 this year but continues to set standards and post ever-improving stats in Australia.

cora read

FIRST DAYS ARE daunting. A glittering Gaelic football career that included 11 All-Irelands gave Bríd Stack a fair degree of certainty in herself. When she signed an AFLW contract with GWS Giants, she left that behind and leapt into the unknown. 

 A new team, a new sport, a new country. All the necessary elements to prove thoroughly overwhelming. Thankfully, she had a guiding hand on the ground, armed with a detailed guidebook forged from her own invaluable experience. 

Cora Staunton has just completed her fourth year with the club. She was signed in 2017 to add much-needed guidance to the group and duly delivered it. So, when a fellow countrywoman landed, it was only natural that she went the extra mile. 

‘Here is where you sit in the dressing room. Here is where you weigh in, here is the sports bra you need and here is how you fit your GPS in it.’ Long-time rivals turned team-mates in western Sydney. Mayo showing Cork around, there were comprehensive introductions to every person in the organisation and a tour of every room in the facility. 

“I mean, she nearly carried me around by the hand,” recalls Bríd with a laugh. 

This is the reason, the primary reason, that GWS signed Staunton. They wanted a leader. There is no doubt the venture became an undisputable success. Earlier this month the 39-year-old was named in the AFLW team of the year. On Wednesday, she was in Melbourne after being nominated for the MVP awards. 

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

In some ways, it comes as no surprise when you consider the sporting career that carried her to Australia. In Gaelic football, she amassed four All-Ireland medals and single-handedly changed the sponsorship landscape. In rugby, she scored seven tries on her club debut, trained with Connacht and was invited to Irish sevens trials. As for soccer, she won an FAI Cup medal and played in the UEFA Cup. 

Yet, there are two prominent factors that ensures her most recent feat ranks above the rest. Firstly, the injury. In 2019, the 11-time All-Star suffered a horrific quadruple leg break. Secondly, her age. 

cora-staunton-with-brid-stack Old rivals: Mayo's Cora Staunton tussles with Brid Stack of Cork. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

For her latest feat, Staunton has found a way to stave off time. The league’s average age is just north of 25. The forward turns 40 later this year. It is patently absurd that she could even maintain such a high level of performance. 

Except she is not just maintaining. Cora Staunton is improving. In 2019, she scored six goals. In 2020, it was seven. In 2021, her total was 10. Remarkable scoring tallies have always been her trademark. In reality, they only scratch the surface. 

What lies below that surface? In her first three seasons, she averaged 14 tackles per season. In 2021, she finished with 18 as well as 10.3 disposals. 

Former Cavan footballer Nicholas Walsh is responsible for bringing her to the Giants. He was involved as a coach with GWS at the time and is now a mental health program manager for the AFL Coaches Association.

“Most people look at the goals, they speak for themselves. Averaging nearly two goals a game this year but her other stuff is where she has really excelled,” he explains. 

“Her tackles, her pressure around the ball, her pressure rating was through the roof. Her score involvements were really high. These are the statistics coaches look at.”

It started as a joke. Walsh was in Shanghai at the Asian Games when he found himself alongside the brand ambassador. He mentioned his new role and suggested they could use a sharpshooter. Staunton laughed. Then asked more about it. And kept asking. 

After only one win in their debut season, Walsh went to newly appointed manager Alan McConnell with a bold suggestion. The AFLW is a state-based draft. For the Giants, it means it is hard to access top quality players as they tend to opt for footy-obsessed Victoria. They needed to think outside the box.

“I only thought she would stay a year. At the time, the Giants were a very young group and could use some leadership.

“Look, age was against her. But later she was going through the stuff with Mayo and it was a great opportunity to get away. After that, she had the break in the leg. That was horrific. There was no way she should have come back from that. I do not know how she did it, to be quite honest. 

“But Cora does what she does and there were flickers. I remember I was in Wagga Wagga last year when they played Richmond. She was playing full forward, staying in deep and the work she was doing around the stoppage was phenomenal. She kicked three or four goals on a really hot evening, on hard ground. 

“An Irishwoman at 38 in that heat should not be the one standing out. She continually exceeds expectations. That is what she has done all the time.”

aflw-crows-giants Staunton has provided leadership for a young squad. Source: AAP/PA Images

Alan McConnell answers the phone and listens to the request. “A piece about Cora…” he repeats with a chuckle, “well as it happens, I am sitting beside the great one right now!” 

The head coach is in Melbourne with Staunton and two of her team-mates for the MVP awards. Two day later, he calls back and explains he spent the aftermath of that call reflecting on the motives behind that initial approach to the Mayo native.  

“We wanted to put in someone in the playing group who understands what it takes to be successful. That was our motive. Influencing the group off the field. 

“She was late getting out to us. Mayo kept winning and Carnacon went all the way as well so she was caught up with that. The intention was to get her here as soon as we could, but she didn’t get here until Christmas of her first year,” he recalls. Her initial contribution did not meet expectations.   

“Anyway, I said to her after the last training before the holidays, ‘If you are going to sit in another meeting and say nothing, don’t come back after Christmas. That is why you are here.’ If she turned out to be a good player as well, that’s great. Now, as it turns out…” 

This was a different era for the league. CrossCoders, the agency that has helped several Irish players make the transition, had yet to begin that process. Only one other Irish player was playing, Laura Corrigan Duryea. International players were barely a concept in the competition as everyone was just finding their feet. 

McConnell, however, was at a different stage of his career. The 64-year-old was an outstanding VFA (reserves) player and coach while later coaching with Geelong, becoming the head AFL coach for the Australian Institute of Sport and being among the first appointments when the GWS organisation was formed.

“Mate, this is my last job,” he says with cheerful abandon. “I am not coaching to get an opportunity. I can afford to be brave. That is why I did it. The guy who I took over from, there is no chance he could go to the club and say, ‘we should recruit a girl from Ireland.’ I had skin in the game but also if I mucked it up, it makes no difference to my credibility.” 

aflw-saints-giants

Bríd Stack knew what sort of player they were getting. Game recognises game. She saw it up close and personal on numerous occasions, including that 2017 season when Mayo beat Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. Staunton scored 1-9 and was named player of the match. 

“We were rivals for so many years because you always knew the fight she would bring. She is never beaten and that is a huge credit to her character. It is better she is getting.

“She pushes herself mentally to get the most out of her body. 

“Mentally, she is always switched on. At 39 years of age and making sure her body is in good nick, constantly looking after yourself. That doesn’t happen naturally. I see her now. The season is over, and she is constantly working to keep herself fit. We go to the gym together, afterwards she goes off running. 

“The season is finished but she knows if she wants to return, she has to be ticking over the whole time. That takes a lot of mental toughness, going hard at it even when you are not in a team environment.” 

During her first week with the club, Walsh brought her aside for a bout of end pointing. This is a drill, one v one, where a ball is kicked up and both parties compete. Each round has an attacker and defender. The attack can hit the defender in the chest, using that leverage for a push and go. 

cora-staunton-consoles-brid-stack-of-cork-at-the-end-of-the-game Staunton consoles Stack after that 2017 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

When Staunton hit the Cavan native, he felt the force barrel through his chest and permeate up to his teeth. Athletically, she was awesome. 

“Her ability in and around traffic is remarkable,” he says.  

“When you look at the Giants games, especially when there are forward stoppages, her ability to see patterns emerge is quite phenomenal. Where the ball is going to go, where she should run. 

“That is experience, knowing when to lose your marker. When to run a pattern but do not do it all the time. The more games she plays the better she gets at that stuff. Combine that with natural talents from Gaelic football in terms of spatial awareness.

“Aishling Sheridan is similar for Collingwood, using her nous from Gaelic football to run and create opportunities for herself. From a pure football point of view, there are similarities in Aishling’s forward play that you see in Cora’s craft.”

There is a challenge in handling a generational talent. Over the course of her career, some coaches opted for the cold shoulder, withholding praise because they assumed she did not require it. Staunton charted this in her 2018 autobiography, explaining that sometimes a word of encouragement would have done the world of good.   

 ”They presumed my confidence was constantly sky high,” she said, “but it wasn’t. And there were times when a word in my ear would have made an enormous difference.”

McConnell knew he was getting a sporting legend, but he also knew he needed to nurture it.  He knew because Staunton told him. Continuous self-assessment and awareness is something she is renowned for. 

Yes, she knows how to get the most out of her body and maximise recovery by using hot and cold therapy. She also knows when a team-mate needs a hug or a push. It is something she places huge importance on, and she expects others to do similar. 

“That bit in the book, she actually came and said that to me. She flagged that early on.” 

Armed with that knowledge, McConnell recognised vulnerability at the heart of the icon. At times during that first season, he occasionally saw confusion in Cora’s eyes during team meetings. 

Such signs of weakness are rare and quickly buried. He couldn’t be sure what it was that she found bewildering, but there is a big world between needing help and asking for it. Thanks to her initial notice, McConnell could take the first step. Quickly they struck up a potent partnership. 

“I have coached in the AFL since 1991 and she is easily the toughest, without a doubt the toughest player mentally I have ever coached.

“I think in terms of under appreciating what she has done, it is probably true in terms of her adventurous spirit to come her and give it a crack but also her recovery. 

“The self-belief has never wavered. I find that astonishing. I still remember the X-rays; they were fucking horrendous. I was in Canberra the week it happened, and they were due to send me the scan. Somebody rang and warned me first, ‘it’s not good. it really isn’t good.’ Then I saw the X-ray and it was just…”

 In 2019, Staunton broke two bones in her tibia, one in her fibula and another at the start of her ankle while playing in a post-season reserve game. 

An intramedullary nail and five screws were inserted into her leg. Nerve damage killed movement in her big toe. After surgery, the leg was fully bruised and three times bigger due to swelling. The journey back to her apartment was so torturous that at one point she worried they would need to call an ambulance. 

From the offset, Staunton was totally and utterly committed to a rehab programme. Five hours a day, seven days a week. Physio and strength and conditioning coach by her side; a team determined to deliver an implausible comeback. 

There were plenty of painkillers, but they killed her appetite and depleted her energy. That’s why Staunton decided to stop taking them. At first, she weaned off; after seven days she stopped entirely. It was time to work.  

In various interviews, Staunton has vaguely articulated how her mental strength stems from overcoming the challenges she encountered in life from an early age. The passing of her mother and best friends is sometimes referenced. 

Taking negatives to produce positives. The same can be said for her attitude in sport. A dark energy festers until it is unleashed on the field. The constantly listed scoring totals and various stats are not just fun facts; they are indicative of a relentless determination to dominate, whatever the stage. 

SEE SPORT
DIFFERENTLY

Get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate in The42 Membership.

Become a Member

When she feels wronged by opponents, team-mates, managers or county boards, she doesn’t merely note it, she absorbs it. Channels it. McConnell discovered this first-hand. 

Eleven days after surgery, he dropped the stalwart home after a rehab session. As they discussed her recovery, Staunton mentioned that the surgeon was good. “We’ll see how good he is in October,” replied the coach. Boy, did he poke the bear. 

aflw-best-and-fairest-awards Staunton with teammates at the 2018 AFLW Best and Fairest Awards ceremony. Source: AAP/PA Images

Staunton seized upon that comment and took from it that he was doubting her. The look in her eyes told the tale: ‘More fool you.’

“When I said what I said, the look she gave me mate. I knew the minute I said it she thought I was saying she was done. Trust me. She subsequently told me many, many times. I was left in no doubt what I had done. 

“I know others said similar and she was harder on them. I was just trying to be realistic. I was trying to set realistic goals. What we now know is, setting realistic goals for Cora does not work.”

GWS finished the season with four wins and five losses. Like Cora, the numbers are only part of the story. 2021 was a year of monumental adversity for the club. It brought turmoil and grief in devastating fashion. 

“To be honest, she started the season poorly,” says McConnell. 

“She would agree with that. Look she got here and spent two weeks in a hotel over Christmas. She then went to Melbourne because she couldn’t get to Sydney. Then we scrambled to a hub in Albury where our training was compromised. She had no preseason. Our first practice match was the second week of January. We had a game two weeks later. 

“She kicks the ball at home, but she doesn’t train our game. There are similar principles, but some are completely different. 

“There are two other significant factors. She was the closest of the players to Jacinda Barclay who passed away last October. I feel she parked dealing with that until she got here. It meant she dealt with that when she got to Australia. 

“She also felt very responsible for Bríd and her family. She took on a massive load in relation to supporting and encouraging her through that mess. She had a lot on her plate. Still, she got going then in round 4 or 5. Then look at her last four games. She played the best footy she has ever played. It’s pretty incredible.”

Former GWS player Jacinda Barclay sadly passed away last year at the age of 29. The Giants wore her number on their jerseys this year and paid an emotional tribute to her after their opening round fixture against Freemantle in Perth, where Barclay hailed from. 

Added to that was the emotional hangover from Bríd Stack’s ordeal. She suffered a stable fracture of the C7 vertebrae in a collision during a pre-season game against Adelaide. Staunton was amongst the first to console Bríd on the pitch. After she was taken away in an ambulance, Cora went to the hotel to collect the Cork woman’s young son. When she eventually got into the Royal Hospital in Adelaide, there was talk of a serious injury and surgery. Emotionally taxing for all concerned.

As a fit again Stack reflects on it now, her appreciation for that support is eternal. 

“I have known her a long time, but we really have grown to be close friends. A lot of that is down to what happened early on. She took me and the two boys under her wing. When I got injured, she was a massive support to me. 

“She had a potential career-ending injury herself when she injured her leg. For her to constantly give me advice and look someday you don’t feel the best, but she was also a great source of comfort. 

“She really has been a wonderful friend.”

Nicholas Walsh calls her a mother to the group. He watches the way she treats younger players like Alyce Parker and Haneen Zreika and thinks a hybrid role playing and developing would be perfect for Staunton next season. 

“She is at a stage now and last year where she can toe the line. She pulls players into place when needed. She understands structures so can organise now. 

“She pulls players up if they are not towing the line. I know she has had hard conversations with players. Cora is massively respected by the players. Her work ethic, especially during rehab, set an example. 

“It means she is not the baddie in it all. She can just put an arm around them when it is needed. This was a tough year for the club. The loss of Jacinta Barclay, I think Cora shown through with that. She has experience and I suppose the older you get in life. She also put out some spot fires in relation to different things in the club.”

Alan McConnell is reluctant to discuss her future. The season has just drawn to a close, award ceremonies and club engagements are still unfolding. Cora, himself and the rest of the MVP party only flew back to Sydney on Thursday. 

It is Friday evening when he calls back. He spends an hour discussing her recent campaign. Then he says his goodbyes, while apologising once again for the delay. 

“The reason I only got talking to you now is I’ve been at the club today,” he admits. 

“I was there having a session with herself and Bríd. We spent an hour training today. Not pre-season, no label really. Just two individual players utterly driven. Neither of them has a contract. Neither of them has committed to coming back. They just wanted to go training today. 

“The three of us, Bríd’s husband, Cárthach, and junior. That is what the greats do. Every time they miss a kick, they are cursing like they are preparing for the grand final this weekend.”

Well then, is she capable of going again for another season? 

“If I asked her that question, what do you think she would say?” 

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

Read next:

COMMENTS (4)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel