Thursday 25 April 2019

Phelan aims to make up for her injury heartache


Claire Phelan believes Kilkenny can avenge last year's loss to Cork. Photo: INPHO
Claire Phelan believes Kilkenny can avenge last year's loss to Cork. Photo: INPHO

Daragh Ó Conchúir

Losing last year's All-Ireland camogie final by one point, having led with just seconds of regulation time remaining, was difficult to take for Kilkenny star Claire Phelan as she had to watch it all from the sidelines.

"It was just after the last round of round-robin games and I tore my hamstring in a club championship game," recalls Phelan. "It was before the semi-final. Then I was training, coming back and I tore it again just before the All-Ireland final. I togged out and was hoping I might see some of it but realistically, I just wasn't ready. It was taking too much time to heal.

"That was tough. You want to be on the pitch and it was such a tough game… You're standing there watching, and the game was so close, you're always thinking what you could do but unfortunately it wasn't going to work for me. The injury was never going to heal in time. It was very hard, very tough to watch but the girls gave it their absolute all and did everything they possibly could. Cork are a great team and they showed it that day.

"This year, hopefully I'll be able to hold on to my place and maybe do something on the pitch in Croke Park."

Now 24, Phelan need have no worries about being on the pitch, fitness allowing, having re-established herself again as Kilkenny completed a three-in-a-row in the league and return to GAA headquarters for a third consecutive All-Ireland final with Cork.

It was Ann Downey who called her into the squad when she was just a fifth-year student in 2011, during Downey's second stint as manager. When the legendary figure returned a third time, she oversaw that long-awaited All-Ireland success.

Phelan has long been in thrall to Downey and her sister Angela, who along with another multiple All-Ireland-winning sister with Kilkenny Marina, garnered an All-Ireland club title with Lisdowney in 1994, when Phelan was just a few months old. These were the names that inspired her as a youngster.

"Oh God yeah," says Phelan, a primary school teacher. "Growing up you were hearing about them and watching out for them in the pitch. It was great to have superstars like that in the mix in your own club."

Brigid Barnaville and Anna Whelan were others from Lisdowney to prosper in a golden period for Kilkenny but it was Ann and Angela who led the way with 12 All-Irelands each. Now Ann is captain of the ship, with Angela, Marina and another great, Breda Holmes, working selflessly.

"We're so lucky to have them and we don't even realise it at times the work they're doing. They'll go to all the lengths they can to help us.

"They're putting everything they can into it, in any way at all. They were fortunate enough to be the stars a few years ago and they're looking after us now and hoping we can do the same."

Phelan has two All-Ireland medals apiece at minor and U-16 level to go with her senior prize. And while Lisdowney provided ready-made role models, she had big influences even closer to home. With three brothers (Seán, Martin and James), she developed a toughness that has stood to her as the physicality of the game has increased.

"Growing up with three boys at home, they probably gave me a bit of a battering but it did me good and probably got me where I am. And they wouldn't be afraid still to throw a few digs if we were out in the back garden!

"The lads would have played underage with Kilkenny and are heavily involved with the club. It's just the natural way of life at home. Our parents are fed up with us going in and out with hurls and gear."

One imagines that there were many broken windows over the years. "Oh God, there's still some broken," adds Phelan.

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