THE banter will stop flowing ninety minutes before throw-in, and like the flick of a switch, Cork will focus.
After their pre-match meal they’ll board the bus and head for the dressing rooms under the stand at the far side of St Brendan’s Park. Goalkeeper Martina O’Brien will nestle down next to Rosscarbery’s Aine Hayes, as she’s always done, and the silence will kick in.
The Ballinascarthy woman was born to be a leader. Aged 22, amid a recession, she started her own massage therapy business, Vitality Massage, in the heart of Tralee. In the four years since she’s commuted the three-hour-round trip to Cork senior training, and rarely missed a session. This year the driving has been shared with Tralee IT Health and Leisure student Shauna Kelly, who today will make her Division 1 league semi-final debut and O’Brien will have her back.
They’ve come a long way since the start of the league. Three losses in-a-row was a shock, but to finish second in the table and secure a place in the last four was equally as surprising.
“It’s been the weirdest ever league campaign,” she laughs.
“At the start of the year, we were thinking there wasn’t hope with three defeats. Two years ago we lost two games and drew one, and we barely came in fourth, so we were obviously thinking we’d blown our chance. But we stuck it out.”
Coach Ephie Fitzgerald also changed the mandate, and under his watch weekly strength and conditioning sessions were held at the Mardyke Arena under the guidance of Mike Carroll. O’Brien went one step further, and three mornings a week she ventures to Joe O’Connor’s (S&C coach for the Limerick hurlers) gym, Niscus Fitness, before work. The transition period is long gone, but the first quarter reports speak volumes of Fitzgerald and his management team.
“It’s like another season really,” says O’Brien.
“Ephie’s great and James (Masters) is super,and we’re doing the same drills we’ve always done, there’s just a different spin on them. The dynamic hasn’t changed, and they see different things in different players, and everyone is getting a chance.
“Alright, there’s different management, but you get on with it. We still have the same goals. We’re not here to show up. We want to play hard, but have fun doing it.”
Since losing to Mayo, Kerry and Dublin in their opening games, they’ve certainly worked hard. Wins over Tyrone, Monaghan, Galway and Armagh saw them secure a semi-final berth, and the latter two fixtures have provided much welcomed must-win, championship scenarios.
But, despite having put in their best performance against 2015 finalists Galway, the reigning champions have worryingly leaked in a number of goals.
“Yeah, we’ve conceded a lot,” says O’Brien, who’s doesn’t hide from the facts.
“Even in the Dublin and Armagh games, we let in seven goals combined and I don’t think Cork teams in the recent past have conceded that, but we’re working on it. To be fair, it’s not completely a backs problem, and if anything it shows how open the game has got.”
Against the 2014 and 2015 All-Ireland finalists however, there’ll be no margin for error.
“When they beat us during the league, they took their chances. Sometimes in the past they hadn’t done that, but they were definitely pouncing on their chances that day. In saying that, we weren’t as fit as we should of been, so I think going into Saturday it’s going to really be 50:50. Ultimately we’re kicking on a lot better now so hopefully that’ll stand to us in Birr.”
Elsewhere, tabletoppers Mayo will take on Kerry in the second game to feature at St Brendan’s Park at 3.30pm. The Kingdom lost to Fiona McHale’s side earlier in the league, but they qualified last week on points difference, ousting Armagh, to secure their place in the semis for the third year running.
Cork: M O’Brien; M Ambrose, B Stack, R Phelan; V Foley, D O’Reilly, S Kelly; R Buckley, B Corkery; O Farmer, C O’Sullivan (C), A Walsh; AT O’Sullivan, H Looney, O Finn.
Dublin: C Trant; O Carey, M Ni Scanaill, F Hudson; S Goldrick, S Ginnegan, N Collins; A Connolly, N Healy (C); N Owens, L Davey, C Rowe; A Ring, N McEvoy, S Aherne.