MÁIRE O’CALLAGHAN does not sugarcoat her answer. “It was awful,” said the Cork star of the fateful climax of last year’s TG4 All-Ireland Women’s Seniors Football semi-final when underdog Meath forced extra time with a brace of late goals.
But although the resurgent Royals duly finished off Cork in those extra 20 minutes, what happened next gave every other ambitious contender reason to be optimistic about this year’s Brendan Martin Cup race.
Dublin’s seemingly unstoppable rise to the straight five was finally undone by Meath, who scaled Everest just a year after leaving base camp of advanced football behind.
And now, on the cusp of another fascinating summer, O’Callaghan surmises: “What happened last year completely ripped the championship apart. It’s going to have given a lot of hope to the teams, you know, the last four stages that might have believed they could do it – but this will confirm, ‘Oh my gosh, any district can really do it, no team is unbeatable, it depends on what happens that day.” So I think – 100 percent – it really ripped the championship wide open.”
The Mourneabbey player has been named Cork captain by her new manager (and longtime club boss) Shane Ronayne. And with the provincial championships returning for the first time since 2019, the Rebelettes travel to Dungarvan this Sunday to take on Waterford in a seniors semi-final in Munster.
Nine months after last year’s Croke Park disaster, O’Callaghan has overcome disappointment and is looking forward, not looking back with fear.
“Meath should win this game,” she concludes, speaking at the launch of SuperValu’s #CommunityIncludesEveryone campaign. “It might be a silly way to look at it, but we all thought, ‘This shouldn’t be our day, we’ll be back next year.’
“From a tactical point of view, we also try to learn from playing a game to the end and it’s only over when the referee whistles.
“You’d hope there wouldn’t be too many occasions where, like you said, something freaky happens … but yeah, you have to say, ‘Okay, there was something different at work here today, and we’re just going to keep going at it. ‘”
On watching last year’s All-Ireland from the outside, O’Callaghan adds: “It was only when I was literally watching the game that I thought, ‘God, I don’t know what result I’m hoping for.’ But they (Meath) deserve it. They had a really good 60 or 65 minutes of football against Dublin so you couldn’t really blame them.”
The new Cork skipper, still withdrawing from another hectic club campaign with Mourneabbey, was absent as they lost to both All-Ireland finalists in the league.
“We never really wanted to come yelling in,” she explains. “Our form didn’t look good but internally nobody in our camp is really worried about how we’ve progressed in the league.”
Crucially, they’ve done enough to avoid a relegation game and “we’ve been training there for a good six weeks now. We cannot complain about our preparation.”
However, Cork must plan without 19-year-old starlet Erika O’Shea, who is starting a new career with the Aussie Rules. “Erika is an absolutely outstanding player, she is so fast and fit, she is a total athlete. It’s definitely a hit,” O’Callaghan concedes, while stressing they have a “really strong group” with the ability to get away from it.
Speaking on the broader risk of further player migration to an expanded AFLW, the Cork captain says: “It will be interesting to see how it plays out with the year being extended and how that will fit in and deter or attract more players.
“Hopefully we can keep as many players in Cork as possible because you don’t want to lose a lot of talent to a competition in another country, although it’s great for them to have the opportunity to play professionally.”