There was definitely a raised eyebrow or two among camogie cognoscenti when the results of the opening round of the Very Camogie Leagues came through.
While Tipperary beating Division 1A champions Galway was a turn-up, the defeat of All-Ireland kingpins Kilkenny by Clare the same weekend was the real shock.
In a quirk of fate, the scheduling algorithm had put the two big guns up against one another for the second round and it was Brian Dowling’s crew that fell short once more to leave them pointless, more or less out of contention for overall honours already.
They accounted for fellow basement-dwellers Dubs a fortnight ago in a hard-fought tie but there had been no element of panic within the squad anyway. Between management and players, this is a hugely experienced group, even allowing for the legendary figures that have stepped away in recent years.
This time around, only Mary O’Connell is unavailable after taking time out to go travelling, but the Doyle sisters, Kellyann and Aoife are back, having missed the march to O’Duffy glory with cruciate tears.
There is an anxious wait to see what the prognosis is on a knee injury suffered in training by player of the year, Miriam Walsh, but other than that it’s all hands on deck.
Like Walsh, Claire Phelan got married at the end of 2022, to Emmett Byrne, and she admits to giving some thought about whether the time was right bring the curtain down on a stellar career, one characterised by classy stickwork, an astute brain to read the play, powerful bursts out of defence and a bloody-minded refusal to back down from any challenge.
Truth was, the 29-year-old Lisdowney defender wasn’t ready to head off into the sunset.
“The lads gave me a bit of time to see what I wanted to do and you do have to look at all angles of it but the way I see it, you only have so long,” explains Phelan.
“I’ve been there a while now but I still have the hunger and drive to do it. And there’s plenty of other girls there that have it, so I said it was an opportunity so I may as well stay going while I can.”
That the residents of the dressing room are close friends is undoubtedly a factor and her teammates “made themselves known” as the nuptials were celebrated enthusiastically.
It is another belated sign of progress in women’s sports that getting married doesn’t automatically draw the curtain down on a sporting career, particularly one at the highest level in an amateur sport where there is no monetary gain.
“It’s not that long ago where it would have been expected I suppose straight away, if you were getting married that was it, and say goodbye to that level of sporting life.
“But as I said, the lads were very good and Emmet himself loves the camogie and is at everything, so he was mad for me to stay going as well, which makes it a lot easier.”
She wants a fourth All-Ireland medal but the triple All-Star does accept that the mindset is different when you commence a season as champions.
Losing is invariably an easy motivator for a following season. There is a danger that victory smooths some of the edges. Enduring satisfaction does not give oxygen to continuing desire. So, in those circumstances, you need to have a really strong ‘why?’
“You’re coming into it from a different side, it’s very different. We’ve won a few now and we haven’t managed to do it the second year running so it is a big challenge. The target is on our back now again but we have to find another level. Last year isn’t going to do anything for us now. We’re happy with what we achieved last year but it’s come and gone.
“Last year you might be using that hurt from the year before or whatever it was to motivate you, whereas this year you’re coming off a high and to ground yourself is the biggest challenge and realise you have you to more than you did last year.
“Hunger would be a huge thing, but I know from training with all the girls that it’s definitely there and there’s no doubt we’ll be driving on as much as we possibly can for the coming year.”
When you have the likes of Phelan, Malone, Walsh and her cousin Grace, Denise Gaule and Emma Kavanagh involved, there is no excuse making. There is a recognition of failings but also of context.
That is why there was no over-reaction to those early reverses, with much of what they did in those outings positive. They hit the front at the three-quarter mark against both Clare and Galway but faded down the stretch.
“It’s early days, but not matter what time of the year it is, anyone that’s playing wants to win so obviously we were disappointed with the first two games but it was great to get a win up in Dublin the last day. It was a tough game, but you want to be trying to get wins at this stage of the year and working towards later in the year.”
“We know it ourselves, watching back and talking about it. We’re having ten-minute patches where we’re doing great things and we switch off. That’s the big thing we need to work on and we’ve earmarked it. There’s plenty of fitness work going on in between and that plays its part too but it’s something we need to focus on.”
Next up, as part of a mouth-watering double-header with the hurling league outing between Kilkenny and Waterford at UPMC Nowlan Park, is an 11.30am start against table-toppers Cork, rivals Phelan has had good and bad days against for the guts of a decade.
Matthew Twomey’s Rebels have been shooting the lights out in recording three straight victories over Dublin, Clare and Tipperary so the primary school teacher knows that as ever, she will have her hands full to keep order on Amy O’Connor, Sorcha McCartan and co.
“Just looking at their results, they’ve had a super start to the year. And no matter what time of year it is, when you’re playing Cork, it’s always tough. They never bring anything else.
“We got a lot done with the break, particularly a lot of hurling. Before that, it was mostly fitness, a lot of running, but we got a good bit of hurling, which is what we were looking forward though it was tough too.
“So It’ll be a good opportunity for us to gauge where we are at this point and hopefully we’ll put up a good performance. That’s what we’re looking for but no doubt it’ll be a tough old battle.”