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Dublin: 5°C Wednesday 25 November 2020

'People were saying, 'Do ye not want to play together at all? I'm delighted to have her back'

After both suffering gut-wrenching injuries last year, Louise and Nicola Ward are leading the way for Kilkerrin-Clonberne and Galway.

AFTER FALLING AGONISINGLY short at the All-Ireland semi-final hurdle so many times over the past few years, Galway finally cleared it this summer. 

louise Louise Ward with her Kilkerrin-Clonberne team last year. Source: Sportsfile.

The final ultimately ended in defeat to Dublin, but crossing the line was hugely important. Central to that bid was industrious midfielder Louise Ward.

Tomorrow, she’ll do everything in her power to clear a similar hurdle with her club as Kilkerrin-Clonberne look to make it fourth time lucky in their attempts at reaching an All-Ireland senior club championship final.

This would be something special.

And with every word 2019 Footballer of the Year nominee Ward utters, you get a sense of just how much it would mean to break another All-Ireland semi-final duck.

It probably would mean more with the club, let’s be real. 

Football is all herself and her twin sister, Nicola, have ever known. Destined for the biggest stage from an early age, they’ve soldiered together year on year in the maroon of Galway and the red of Kilkerrin-Clonberne.

Louise and Nicola, Nicola Louise; the Wards of Galway are two that need no introduction, that’s for sure. It’s interesting all the same to go back to where it all began. To where most footballers’ journeys do.

“Dad would have brought us out into the back garden kicking around, the two of us, just throwing the ball up and that,” Louise recalls in conversation with The42, three days out from their Sunday showdown with Dublin and Leinster champions Foxrock-Cabinteely. 

She’s relaxed no matter what topic she’s discussing, but perhaps most relaxed looking back fondly through the years. The reminiscing also gives a brilliant insight into how this club outfit have become so good.

Six county titles in-a-row and back-to-back crowns at provincial level don’t come without years of hard work in the lead-up.

“We went to school in Clonberne National School,” she continues. “We had two very good teachers in there, the main one was Áine Hussey. She used to bring us out kicking ball at lunchtime.

“They had a system there where it was a small pitch to a medium pitch to the big pitch. You had to work your way up as you went through the school. You could see the progress then as you were moving from pitch to pitch.

“It was Dad then that ended up bringing us to the club… we started with the boys at underage, until U10. I would have started before Nicola, Sarah Gormally would have came the same time as I did, then Olivia [Divilly] came, then Nicola eventually came.

louise-ward-and-olwen-carey Louise Ward facing Dublin in this year's All-Ireland final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We all came up through the ranks at the club but that’s where it all kind of started.”

At 14 or 15, they made their way into the senior set-up of the Clonberne club, where they got to play with someone they looked up to for so long. 

Galway legend and 2004 All-Ireland-winning captain Annette Clarke was the heartbeat of the side — she still is at 36 — and the chance to play with someone they admired was absolutely incredible, Ward beams. 

“Clarkie, she’s an idol,” the physiotherapist, who works for a company called Healthcare Direct providing physio to nursing homes, smiles. “We all still look up to her. If you’re doing something Clarkie approves of, you’re like, ‘This is great!’

“She’s been a great role model, she’s always driven the standards. For us, she was the one that we always looked up to. If you were doing something that was good by her standards, you knew it was okay. Hers are so high.

“Even getting to play with her now, she is the one person I would absolutely love to win an All-Ireland for because she deserves it so much.”

You could argue they all do, considering the journey they’ve been on over the past few years. But as many say, there’s not much room for sentiment in sport.

Last year, the Tribeswomen fell to eventual champions, Mourneabbey. They suffered the same fate to the same opposition in 2015 and Donegal’s Termon ended their hopes of a first-ever All-Ireland title in 2014.

“Even after last year we thought it would be a long road to get back there again but here we are,” Ward says, ever the optimist. “We haven’t done to well in All-Ireland semi-finals over the last while, we’re trying to put right a few wrongs this time around.”

This year, they’re arguably in their best position yet. After a “big wake up call” in the county semi-final, Kilkerrin-Clonberne have been motoring nicely since.

A comprehensive victory over Corofin followed in the final, before they went head-to-head with Mayo powerhouse Carnacon in their Connacht semi-final. And just like they did last Autumn, they ended the 2017 All-Ireland champions’ season. 

“The last two years, it’s probably been my favourite game of the year because there’s such a rivalry built up at this stage,” Ward beams. “We’re meeting them every year for the last seven years.

“Last year was massive for us because obviously Nicola was out with her knee and that was a massive loss. Another girl, Maeve Flanagan, did her cruciate so to be without them… Carnacon were at full strength and people probably didn’t give us a chance.

nicola-ward-and-niamh-collins Nicola facing Dublin last year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It was great to win that last year. And this year, we kind of had the confidence about our own selves going into that game.”

The 4-9 to 2-4 scoreline might not have reflected how close the game was, she concedes, but a win is a win and it was another step in the right direction. And Louise and Nicola again ran the show in the Connacht final, combining for 3-3 as they saw off Roscommon’s Kilbride.

What a change it is to this time last year, when Louise was playing all the football with her sidelined twin Nicola watching on after a cruciate setback. That said, Louise had her own injury struggles earlier in the 2018 season. 

“People were saying, ‘Do ye not want to play together at all like?’” the latter laughs. “I was literally gone from like March until June and next thing, Nicola got her injury in September. She was just back at the end of June this year.

“I’m delighted to have her back, it’s like having a safety net there with you when she’s playing with you. Fair play to her, though, she put in so much work trying to get back from that knee. Even myself, working as a physio, I wouldn’t be near as diligent as she was with her rehab programme. I should have been, you know what I mean.

“She just put in so much work. She deserves everything now that’s coming to her, she’s doing well.”

After an incredible 2019, both of them are now nominated for All-Star awards.

Rather fitting considering the long roads they’ve both navigated. Louise can laugh now when she’s asked about her own injury, but it most definitely wasn’t a laughing matter at the time. 

“I couldn’t find out for ages what was wrong,” she explains. “I was having a lot of groin pain, pain into my abdomen and going down as far as my knee.

“I had been to a few people. I thought it was a problem with my hip; a hip impingement, a labral tear or something. But actually around the time of O’Connor Cup, the year we lost to DCU, I found out after that I had torn my hip flexor, two of my groin muscles and I had torn the tendon that goes into my abs as well.

“I was trying to play on a bit of bad condition,” she giggles.

The original damage happened in a league game against Mayo on 11 February, but low and behold, Ward was instrumental for UL in their O’Connor Cup final on 11 March. 

“I didn’t realise what was wrong with it at the time,” Ward adds. “I just was like, ‘My hip felxor is gone’. Then the rest of it just kind of happened, it wasn’t getting better.

louise-ward Louise facing Mayo earlier this year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I kinda was playing on. I didn’t really know, and then I was resting it. Before that O’Connor Cup final, I wouldn’t have trained too much because I’d be very sore for days after it.

“It was kind of just lingering, so I went and got an MRI scan then. I ended up going to Eanna Falvey up in Santry, a hip specialist, and he told me then that I had torn my hip flexor as well and that’s kind of what kept the whole ball rolling because my groin muscles tried to help do the hip flexor’s job, they couldn’t do it and they ended up going and then, there was loads of different things.

“It’s grand, I’m past it now anyway and I’m well able to look after it,” she insists, crediting Castlebar-based physio, Brendan Butler, for her successful return.

“He got me back when he said he was going to get me back,” she says. “He ended up being the Mayo ladies physio and me there saying my goal was to get back for the Connacht final!

“I didn’t find out until after that he was actually their physio. He was so good so he was.”

After missing most of the league bar three games, Ward came on with seven minutes to go in the provincial showpiece that June and has been flying ever since. 

No niggles or anything this year, she’s happy out. So herself and Nicola actually want to play together now, she jokes. Just twice have they been on opposing sides and that happened through college football. Louise studied in UL, her sister in UCD, and they ended up locking horns in the 2016 O’Connor Cup final.

“I wouldn’t like to do it again,” Louise admits, reflecting on a tough day at the office for the Limerick college. “Ah, I was delighted for her though, she deserved it so much.

“It was probably tough for the parents watching on. I think Dad was kind of going for me, and Mam was like, ‘No, UCD!’ They obviously both celebrated with her at the end.

“I wasn’t really looking forward to that game and playing against her. She’s well able to beat me up with stick!”

Just like they all are on the team. The Wards and the Divillys — Olivia and Siobhan — may be the two sets of sisters that have grabbed the headlines of late, but it really is a family affair across the board.

aport Source: Sportsfile Twitter.

“The club is a big community team,” Ward nods. “There’s so many pairs of sisters on our team – there’s the Gormallys, the Hughes, the Fahys, us, the Divillys. Then there’s so many cousins, there’s loads of relations throughout.

“Ah it is a big community thing. It’s nice because it brings everyone together. Training is funny, if you put two sisters marking each other you’d know they’re going at it as well, like.

“That’s the thing with club, there’s real family involvement and the whole community is involved. So many people have gotten behind us this year fundraising and everything, which is so good. It’s always so nice to go back, I enjoy going back to club when the county season finishes.”

The heartbreaking finish to the year with Galway is still raw, but Ward insists they can only reflect on the year as a positive one.

She goes into detail on the All-Ireland final and the chances the Westerners missed, dismissing any suggestions that her side played negatively. But ultimately, it’s over. It’s done. It’s all in the past. 

“We just didn’t get the rub of the green on the day. But it was a really good year. For everyone, that was our first time playing in Croke Park, our first time getting to an All-Ireland final. It was an absolute journey for all of us to be on together. 

“To get to two All-Ireland finals is massive progress as well,” she continues, in reference to the league decider. “And to retain the Connacht title as well, it’s always huge.

“Even in terms of playing Mayo, we had to play them four times this year. We didn’t manage to lose on any occasion and that’s a big thing as well.

“To get over that line and get past, again, the semi-final stage and get to a final was massive for Galway ladies as well. There’s such a good conveyor belt of players coming through. Galway ladies football is in such a good place, there’s such good work being done at underage and you can see there’s minor titles and U16 titles, U14 being won.”

Not only that, but there’s recognition aplenty with the Ward twins among nine Galway All-Star nominees, and Louise up for the Player of the Year award.

It’s not all about individual accolades, awards and glory, but it must be pretty special for the family. It certainly is, Louise assures.

“Ah, Mam and Dad are delighted for us as well,” she smiles. “As you say, it’s not all about individual accolades but it’s nice to get recognised at the end of the year.

“The Player of the Year nomination, being nominated on behalf of your peers, it’s nice. But I suppose if you could give them back and swap them for an All-Ireland title, you’d do it in the morning. Ah, but it’s nice to get the recognition at the end of the year. 

sinead-burke-and-louise-ward-celebrate-the-final-whistle Celebrating the All-Ireland semi-final win with Sinead Burke. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We’ll have a good night now in two weeks time. There’ll be a good few of the Galway girls going up, and all the girls from the club that played this year, the four of us, all got nominated, so that’s massive for the club as well. We’ll have a good night!”

That’s Olivia Divilly and goalkeeper Lisa Murphy in the running, too. 

But for Kilkerrin-Clonberne, the entire focus is on tomorrow [throw-in 2pm].

On 2018 finalists Foxrock-Cabinteely, and on the all-important 60 minutes of football too be played at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence at Bekan, Co. Mayo (it was meant to be a home game for Kilkerrin but their pitch is unplayable and they’ve been operating from there.)

As the old adage used so often in dressing room harshly goes, no one remembers the teams that lose semi-finals. 

It really is all about finally clearing that hurdle, getting over the line and reaching a first-ever All-Ireland final. 

“That’s it, exactly,” Ward agrees, matter-of-factly. “I suppose semi-finals are there for winning and you just want to get over the line whatever way you can.

“On the day, the best team mightn’t always win it. It’s going to come down to who wants it more and who’s willing to work the hardest for it. Hopefully our girls will be prepared to do that the next day as well, just to push us that bit more. 

“We said this year if you want to get into an All-Ireland final, you want to be getting past all your little steps. Ultimately at the start of the year, you’re in the competition because you want to win the big one and that’s why we’re there.

“Hopefully now on Sunday we can get over that line and maybe get to a final this year. And if we get there, anything could happen. We’ll see, we’ll see…”

See, they will.

We thought there might be a post-World Cup comedown, but then Saracens went and Saracened. Andy Dunne joins Sean Farrell and Gavan Casey as the pod segues from the international to club season.

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Emma Duffy

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