By John Foley
CARLOW camogie manager Mark Brennan has experienced so much of what life in the GAA has to offer. As a Carlow hurling captain he has lifted the Chritsy Ring Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand. As a player he has won club championships with Old Leighlin and Noamh Brid. As a coach he has won All-Ireland club titles with Myshall and, 12 months ago, the All-Ireland Junior A title with Carlow.
But with every victory comes a raising of standards and this year, in the Premier Junior grade, the goal was always to take this talented group of camogie players all the way to the final in Croke Park.
Of course getting to the final is one thing, getting a performance from the team on one of the biggest sporting days of their lives is something else.
“Playing in Croke Park for the very first time with such a young squad, you just don’t know how girls are going to react,” he said after the game.
“In the first half we wanted to keep it nice and tight. We didn’t want Armagh to get a big lead on us because it’s tough to chase a lead in Croke Park. I felt in the second half, things opened up a little bit. The girls started to hurl a bit and we had space to work in. Our inside forward line started to get good ball into them and we felt if we could do that, they would do the scoring.”
The sheer expanse of the stadium coupled with the crowd made for a different challenge which the players had to respond to.
“Everything is a little bit different out there,” said Mark. “Communication is so important in hurling and when you can’t hear a person 10 yards away from you it can be difficult. I’m screaming at girls and they haven’t a clue what I’m saying to them. That does take time to get used to. There’s no point in saying otherwise.”
He says the team knew the importance of settling into the game as quickly as possible.
“In the first half, we tried to keep it nice and tight. We didn’t want to leak scores. When girls settled into it and got their confidence we felt we could push on a little bit more.”
Indeed in the first 15 minutes Carlow more than held their own around the middle of the pitch, but they were snatching as chances and allowing possession to slip from their grasp.
“We were creating space inside but we weren’t using the ball intelligently enough,” said Mark. “Our half forward line were working hard, but not working efficiently. We weren’t hitting our free players. We tweaked a couple of things, not so much personnel, more our attitude in the second half. We were doing the right things in the first half we just weren’t executing it very well. Maybe that was just nerves. In the second half, the girls threw off the shackles a bit and just went for it.”
He says the effects of this win could be felt around Carlow for some time to come as the players come to terms with the magnitude of what they have achieved on the biggest stage.
“They’ll walk a little bit taller and rightly so,” said Mark of the players. “I know every manager says that their team trains hard, but I’ve been a county player and I’ve never trained as hard as these players. It’s been consistent for two years and we felt we had to do it because Armagh and Westmeath and all these teams were way ahead of us when we started this journey so we had to just put in the effort.”
Finally he had a word for the fantastic support the team enjoyed on the day.
“I’m kind of superstitious that I never look up into the crowd during the game,” he said. “I couldn’t believe when I turned around at the end to see so many people there. I didn’t think there were that many people in Carlow. There’s nobody minding the place at home!
“But the colour they bring is just fantastic. We’re crying out for days like this in Carlow so we’ll soak it up when we can.”