Cora Staunton: 'I've been living with the oval ball'
Arguably the best Ladies' Gaelic football player of all time, Cora Staunton travels to Australia next month for a shot at the big time. She tells our reporter why she's made the decision at 34 - and how sport has supported her through personal tragedy
It is the afternoon after the night before. Cora Staunton looks remarkably fresh for one who was among the invited guests at one of the most-talked-of soirées of the year: Colm 'Gooch' Cooper's testimonial.
"It was a brilliant night," she says of the controversial money-raiser for the retired Kerry legend. "You had the cream of Irish sport there and they were paying tribute to someone who has brought such pleasure on the field."
Staunton - one of the greatest Gaelic footballers of her generation - has little time for the criticism levelled by pundits such as Joe Brolly, who suggested that such testimonials are in contravention of the GAA's amateur ethos. "Oh, Joe Brolly just likes to be controversial," she says, dismissively. "How many All-Irelands has he won? Compare that with the amount of All-Irelands and accolades the Gooch has and there's no comparison. Colm is perfectly entitled to have a testimonial if he wants to. And, anyway, a lot of money was raised for charity."
GAA lovers will need little introduction to this tall, imposing player with an unerring ability to score, but she doesn't have the household-name status enjoyed by the Bernard Brogans and Joe Cannings of this world. For generations, talk of team sport was centred on men. That's changed significantly of late, however, and there were over 46,000 people in Croke Park for this year's Dublin-Mayo ladies' football final, which featured Staunton. It was a record crowd for the women's game - and considerably more, even, than the attendance at the women's FA Cup Final at Wembley.
Staunton says she was taken aback by the number of household names of sport who came up to pay their respects to her at Cooper's testimonial - but anyone who has seen her play with such consistent brilliance for Mayo through the years will not have been surprised. Fellow sports stars recognise special talent when they see it.
And, of course, Staunton has made something of a controversial decision herself - next month she moves Down Under to play Australian Rules football with the Greater Western Sydney Giants.
Today, however, Staunton is at Croke Park in her capacity as a Sky Sports ambassador. The UK broadcaster has invested money at grassroots level and is sponsoring the GAA Youth Forum. It's an opportunity for the stars of tomorrow to rub shoulders with Staunton and her fellow ambassadors, Tipperary hurler Brendan Maher and Kerry footballer Paul Geaney.
It's the first time she has returned to GAA HQ since the heavy defeat at the hands of Dublin in the All-Ireland Final. The pain of such losses doesn't abate, she says, whether you've won several titles or none at all. "I'm lucky in that I've been very busy with my club [Carnacon] since then," she says. "We've played virtually every weekend. But there are times when you're alone, driving maybe, and it comes back to you, and it's hard."
The 34-year-old has four All-Ireland medals, but the last of them was collected 14 years ago. Mayo ladies seem to be on something of their own run of bad luck, something the county's men's team knows only too much about.
Staunton first started playing inter- county with Mayo at 13 and she was just 16 when she won her first All-Ireland medal. There was only a fraction of the crowd that showed up this year - a sign of the extraordinary progress that ladies' Gaelic football has enjoyed. "There's so much more visibility now than even five years ago," she says. "You've got Lidl putting a lot of money into it and helping to spread the word."
Gaelic football was there for her during the toughest period of her life - losing her mother to breast cancer. "Sport can help you cope with the tough stuff that life throws at you," she says. "It was a long illness, but it's something you come to get used to. Today, I talk to young people about how team sport can provide the support you need at hard stages of your life. I was very glad to have it."
She says she is mindful that breast cancer is sometimes hereditary and is vigilant about checking for lumps. But, she insists, she doesn't live her life in fear of what may be around the corner. "That would be no way to live your life," she says. "You have to take each day as it comes and seize any opportunities you can."
One of those is the prospect of playing pro sport in Sydney. Last month, she signed a contract with Greater Western Sydney Giants, one of eight teams that will comprise the second season of the Women's Australian Football League. The first international player to be drafted into the league, she will be paid a wage and have accommodation and a car supplied. In the twilight of her career, she's getting a taste of the big time.
"I'm excited about it," she says. "I trained with them for three days to get a feel for the place and their set-up is incredible. There are physios, dietitians and psychologists whenever you need them. The gym is something else. I was lucky enough to see the facilities at Munster Rugby, but I'd say the Sydney centre is three or four steps beyond that."
The vast majority of Aussie Rules players are in their early 20s and it's a sign of Staunton's peak physical fitness that she's considered good enough to mix with them. There's a lot of preparation to do, though. "I've been living with the oval ball," she says. "I try to get out as often as I can to handle it and kick it. It's the biggest change - that and the fact there's a greater physicality to it. But then, I'm sometimes double-marked [in GAA matches]: they do tend to hang off me."
She's also looking forward to simply seeing a bit of the world. All those opportunities were denied to her when she was younger. "I couldn't go to America when I was 21 or 22. A lot of my friends were going but it would have meant giving up on the Championship with Mayo.
"The AFL has come at the right time of the year because it means I can go after the club season has finished, and it would finish in time for me to play Championship. I'll make my mind up about that in the first or second week of April. I could be feeling very good after the season or I could be wrecked. It'll mean I won't be playing in the National League, but then I'm not so sure that players of my age should be playing in it anyway."
Much like her male counterparts, she says top-level GAA can make it difficult to hold down relationships. "You're training an awful lot and you've to be careful with your diet," she says, "so it's not always easy." She is single at present and deadpans that she will soon be on the look-out for a husband. Would she welcome overtures from readers of this article? "Jesus - don't put that in! I'm good, thank you very much."
Staunton works for the HSE in a role that involves outreach work in the Traveller community. It's a job she is passionate about, but she would like to combine it with a fitness-related venture when her playing career eventually ends. "There's a real problem with childhood obesity in this country now," she says, "and it's something that needs to be tackled urgently. There just doesn't seem to be a willingness to really do something about it, and one of the first things that should be done is to make physical education mandatory. Is it not more important for it to be obligatory than the learning of Irish? I mean, we are talking about our health here."
And with that, she's off, a long drive to Mayo ahead of her. There's a club game to play next day. And what a performance: Cora Staunton scores a scarcely credible 4-13. Next stop: Sydney.
Cora Staunton was a mentor at the 2017 #GAAyouth Forum in partnership with Sky Sports at Croke Park. Over the next five years, Sky Sports will invest €3m in supporting GAA grassroots initiatives