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Dublin: 5°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

Having won All-Irelands with Cork, Dublin's adopted daughter gears up to face her former side

Sarah O’Donovan shares her turbulent story with The42.

SHE’S WON ALL-IRELAND medals with Cork, but now plays her inter-county camogie with Dublin.

Littlewoods Ireland Camogie National Leagues Launch Sarah O'Donovan. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

She’s played National League with Cork City, both alongside and against high-profile soccer stars such as Stephanie Roche.

She was once asked into Eamonn Ryan’s admirable Cork ladies football panel. “You’re raw but I could work with you,” were the words of the man himself, a compliment of the highest regard.

Sarah O’Donovan is quite the all-rounder.

But it’s camogie she’s sticking to for now. A new job is what ultimately resulted in a twist of fate, a move which saw her switch her rebel roots for a sky blue jersey.

O’Donovan moved to Dublin in 2014 and started playing her club camogie with St Vincent’s.  A teammate from her club in Cork, Ballygarvan, introduced her to the Marino outfit and she’s been there ever since. From there, stemmed an opportunity to join the inter-county panel, a decision which O’Donovan was wary about at first.

“Shane O’Brien was coming in as the new Dublin manager that year, and he was changing a culture,” she recalls. “He wanted a squad of players who were going to commit to the setup and commit to the structure. They ran trials then in November.

I remember ringing my Dad going, ‘Jaysis Dad, Shane O’Brien wants us to come out and play with Dublin. Can I? Should I? What would people say?’

“And he said, ‘Well, look you’ve been out of Cork hurling for a long time, they’ve kind of retired you. You have to be honest with yourself here, you’re not going to get into any Cork team. If you want to play inter-county, you might as well go for the trials.’”

That was her mind made up. She caught O’Brien’s eye at the trials and was named in the panel.

dublinvamogie O'Donovan first lined out with Dublin in 2015. Source: We Are Dublin GAA

The year that followed was a huge one for Dublin, impressing in the championship but most noticeably in the league. Kingpins Cork had beaten them by 37 points in the summer of 2014, but by the time they met again the following March, the deficit was reduced to just five.

“You can imagine there was a lot of apprehension, having lost by 37 points in the championship and then I’m going, ‘This is my new team and I’m playing against my old team-mates and I’ve won All-Irelands with these,’ and you’re hoping that we’re going to show up.”

As she says herself, that result was what really galvanized Dublin as a team. A 32-point turnaround within a matter of months is a serious achievement in itself, and a statement that the Dubs had well and truly arrived on the inter-county camogie scene, and were a force to be reckoned with at that.

Obviously, there was the possibility of friction and sourness with her ex-teammates on the day, but O’Donovan says there were no hard feelings over her decision.

“That day in Parnell Park, there was only three or four who would have played when I won the All-Ireland with them in ’06 and played with them in ’07. Briege [Corkery] and Orla Cotter would have been two that would have been in my vicinity.

“They’re both ladies and they understand sportspeople want to play and they want to train, so there wouldn’t have been animosity.

“And then I suppose, the big disrespect now is that the girls who are playing now for Cork don’t have a clue who you are. The corner back doesn’t know that you used to play for Cork, or that you were in her position 10 years ago.”

After the 32-year-old originally hung up her Cork camogie jersey nearly 10 years ago, her focus turned to another sport she loved.

Growing up, she had always been a talented soccer player. She represented Ireland at underage level, up to U19. When the Women’s National League started up, O’Donovan grabbed the opportunity to line out with Cork City with open arms.

This venture saw her play alongside Denise O’Sullivan, who now plays with Houston Dash in America, and Clare Shine who has since moved across the waters to Glasgow FC.

sarah od O'Donovan was a pivotal member of the Cork City side.

“I wasn’t involved with Cork camogie teams and I wasn’t going to be involved,” she recalls. “I wasn’t going to get a look in, they had kind of moved on without me.

Getting to go back and play with Cork City meant that I was training at that top level. The National League had just started so you’re marking players like Stephanie Roche in Turner’s Cross on a Saturday. She scored an absolute screamer the day I marked her but it’s fine!

“Players like her, players like Denise O’Sullivan. Denise used to play 10 and I was playing at 8, so I was actually feeding the ball to Denise. All I had to do was get the ball to her. I was rough and ready and Denise was ‘the’ player.”

Maybe rough and ready, but raw talent at that. So Cork Ladies football manager Eamonn Ryan thought anyway.

O’Donovan played with Cork up until U21 level. She also lined out with her club Valley Rovers and juggled both football and camogie when she studied in UCC.

“My U16 [Cork] team would have been the year above Briege [Corkery] and Rena [Buckley] and them. So it was the year before they became incredibly successful. We were going well, and then the following year they just blew us out of the water. I was the year before everything kind of changed for Cork.

“I remember playing in college and Eamonn Ryan was our manager in UCC at the time. I was playing with the second team because I was playing camogie properly full-time and he came up to me after the O’Connor Cup game, I had been playing midfield, and it was a right dog fest.

“He goes, how did he put it now, he said something along the lines of, ‘I could work with you, you’ve got the basics, or there’s potential there’ was it? ‘You’re raw,’ that’s what he said. ‘You’re raw but I could work with you, would you be interested in coming in?’”

It was an offer she turned down. That was in 2005, and since then she’s never kicked a ball at that level, missing the boat for Cork’s incredible senior football successes.

In hindsight, you look back and you go ‘Eamonn Ryan said you were raw but he’d like to work with you’ — and you turned it down? Where would you have gone?’ I don’t know if I’d have gone very far but that’s my biggest compliment.”

An English and Law graduate, O’Donovan has also had a stint in sports journalism. She worked with the Evening Echo and the Examiner for six years, covering matches every weekend.

Sarah O'Donovan and Jennifer Braniff O'Donovan in action with Cork in 2004. Source: INPHO

She now works with the Mark Pollock Trust. At 22, Pollock — a two-time Commonwealth Games medallist — lost his sight and in 2010 he had a freak fall and became paralysed from the waist down. He fought back and is now helping lead the charge to investigate and fundraise for medical advances in the area of paralysis and spinal cord injury.

She initially joined Mark’s team because of her friend Jamie Wall, a Cork dual player left paralysed after he developed an abscess on his spine.

“It was more cathartic for me to do something for Jamie, to get him as close to the research as I could by being able to show him that it was happening. That was my initial starting point.

“But then obviously when you meet Mark [Pollock], he becomes this absolute force of nature in your life, and you realise that you’re not tired, there’s no such thing as tired. There’s no such thing as can’t or won’t, or we’ll look at that in a different way.

“There’s no such thing as no. We always manage to find another way and we’re really excited. We’re hoping to start a clinical trial towards the summer and it would bring paralysed people to come in and work alongside Mark in research. It’ll be the first time in the world that it’ll be done, and it just happens to be done in Dublin. ”

Her work with Pollock is inspiring, and something that drives her on in her own sport. And every last shred of inspiration will be welcomed to the Dublin setup this year.

First up in the Littlewoods Camogie League on Saturday is, of course Cork, and Dublin’s adopted daughter O’Donovan is relishing the challenge in Mallow.

“In previous years Cork wouldn’t have came back training as early as they have this year and I think that’s based on them losing to Kilkenny in September. They’re obviously very bruised and they want to settle a score so they’ve come back much earlier to do that.

“It’s unfortunate that they’ve decided to take the league seriously this year but that’s the nature, that’s just the serendipity and we’re really excited about meeting them at their best, because it actually means that we can judge where we are.

“You have to be honest with yourself. There’s no point in going out early and meeting half a team and then come championship, thinking that we’re much further ahead than we are. We’re going to be meeting a Cork team who are ready to go, and ready to win a National League, so we’ll be able to gauge where we are depending on how we do against them.

Littlewoods Ireland Camogie National Leagues Launch Siobhan Flannery, Shelly Farrell, Sarah O'Donovan and Kelley Hopkins at the launch of the Littlewoods Camogie League. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

You’re either doing really well, or you’re not up to the mark. And if you’re not up to the mark, you’ve four months to rectify that come championship.

“From our point of view, we have 11 college players so they’re all playing Ashbourne Cup. They’ve been in there for the last two months. Some of them won’t be ready for us until championship and that’s what we have to look at.”

O’Donovan is glad that her days of splitting herself between different sports and teams are over however, and is ready to put everything into her newfound county this year.

She says it simply: “One team, one focus.”

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