Former Roscommon camogie goalkeeper Caroline Connaughton, who recently announced her retirement following years of uninterrupted service spanning a quarter of a century, tells Kevin Egan that the game in the county is in far better shape now than when she started out in 1993…
Many exciting and interesting things happened in the world of Gaelic games over the weekend, but it was in Dr. Hyde Park where supporters witnessed something that hadn’t happened for a quarter of a century. Just a few weeks after her retirement from intercounty activity was confirmed, Caroline Connaughton was a supporter of the Roscommon camogie team, rather than a member of the panel.
The St. Dominic’s stalwart called it quits on her intercounty career over the winter after first lining out in 1993, and she admits that it’s something that will take more than a little getting used to.
“I’d say for the first year it’ll be a very strange feeling. You’d miss that sense of excitement and nervousness as you get closer and closer to Sunday. It’ll take me a long time to get used to it,” outlined the Rahara native.
It’s hard to imagine that a player of such incredible experience could still be nervous, after playing for a quarter of a century in the county colours, but she still clearly attaches huge responsibility to the role of playing for Roscommon, which is why she took the decision that 2018 would be her last year, and she kept her promise.
“Once you hit 35, you’re always conscious of the fact that time is against you, that you’re going to have to make way at some point soon. You’d work as hard as you can to stay at the same level, and I do feel that I was going well enough for the last couple of years, but I said at the start of last year that this would be my last spin, and I stuck to that,” she explained.
“It’ll take a lot of getting used to, but it’s time now for some of the younger girls to step in and show what they can do.”
It’s a measure of Connaughton’s positivity and enthusiasm for the sport that when she’s asked about her top highlights and her biggest disappointments, she spends far more time talking about the positives. Losing three All-Ireland finals are understandably her biggest disappointments, but the spark of animation in her voice as she talks of the good days shows that the positive memories are still vivid and clear in her mind.
Hurling in Croke Park while still a teenager, the county’s Nancy Murray Cup success in 2009, her selection as captain for Ireland for the Camogie/Shinty Compromise Rules series, their victory in that series in 2010 and her Soaring Star All Star award the same year — they all feature prominently in her list of good days in the county colours.
She admits that she wouldn’t have expected to go 19 years without playing in Croke Park after playing there in finals in both 1995 (against Limerick) and 1996 (against Cork) but it meant all the more to her to get back there in 2015, when Laois proved to be just too good on the day.
In keeping with that optimistic mindset, she also believes that Roscommon camogie is in a better place now than it was when she started out. It’s fair to say that not everyone would hold that view, given that Roscommon played in two All-Ireland junior finals in Caroline’s first few seasons with the county and have since struggled to make the same impact, even in a competition where the second teams of top counties have been moved aside into their own competition. Yet she remains unequivocal.
“Definitely, things are better now. The intercounty season is structured better and you get more games. I remember when you would just play Galway in a Connacht championship game and that might be you done for the year,” she recalled.
“The standard of coaching at club and county has gone up, the club championship is competitive, underage county teams have played in All-Ireland finals, so definitely there are a lot of good things happening. It’s not easy to keep girls involved and that’s a big challenge, but there are a lot of things being done right. If we can just get some success on the field as a county, it’ll be a huge help in building the belief among young players that Roscommon camogie is something to strive to be part of”.
She won’t be in action in this year’s league or in the championship later this summer, but Caroline’s playing career will continue in 2019. She confirmed that St. Dominic’s are back training and she’s happy to keep lining out for her club, to the point that she declares that the Four Roads and Athleague hegemony can definitely be cracked this year, or very soon. But she’s also dipping her toes in the coaching water, having identified a key issue that isn’t always dealt with properly in club and county teams.
“I’m doing a bit with some of the underage teams, and, where possible, I try to take the goalkeepers aside and give them a bit of specific training. I grew up watching my sister Deirdre play in goal, so I got used to knocking the ball around with her and having sliothars hammered at me. But a lot of teams wouldn’t have had any goalkeeper coaching, and it’s incredibly valuable.
“Things like where to stand, how to catch a high ball, how to position yourself in different situations — these are all specialist skills that won’t get covered if you’re just training with the outfielders as a group, and they’re very important. I used to play for years as a full-back and it makes your job so much easier if you know that you can trust the goalkeeper behind you to deal with a high ball, or to be where she needs to be. A lot of girls might feel that they don’t want to go in goals, that they’d prefer to be outfield, but it’s incredibly important and they need to be taught properly how to play the role.
“Not everyone will have the natural fearlessness required to go in goal, but then I probably didn’t have it either until I got used to Deirdre firing balls at me, So you can learn, if you’re given the chance at a younger age with the right guidance.”
However while giving younger girls the skills is a hugely important role, she’s also very aware of how camogie is perceived and sold to the wider public, particularly relative to ladies’ football, which has become hugely popular, even in hurling strongholds like her own club, and Athleague.
“Of course you’d love to see a sponsorship deal like Lidl have done with ladies football, or for TG4 to come in and cover more games. There are some great games played, but people don’t see them, and then it’s just unfortunate that you have last year’s All-Ireland final broadcast live on RTE 2 and it’s a poor game. The referee didn’t let the game flow at all and it turned into a free-taking competition.
“The game is different now — the girls that are coming out of minor in the last couple of years tend to have a lot more strength and conditioning work done, they have a different level of power, and the rules need to change to reflect that. You’ll still get a shoulder or a hit in some games, but it is against the rules and it can vary depending on the referee, which is hard to manage. I also don’t think hand-passed goals look well, though I am biased because as a goalkeeper. They’re just very hard to stop!
“There is more physicality in the game now and the rules need to reflect that. We need a consistent standard applied and then people will realise that it’s a great game to watch and to play.”
She accepts however that such matters are out of her control, not to mention out of the control of anyone in Roscommon. So here in the county, it’s coaching young players and then keeping them involved that’s key.
“It can be done with the right people, undoubtedly. Look at what’s happened in Tulsk, largely driven by Karina Jones, and they’re producing some great underage teams. Boyle are trying to get things going, and you’d hope that Roscommon Gaels will get some of their young players through to adult as well.
“At county level there have been some good underage teams there, so there’s a lot of potential there if players are supported the right way. Get some good results on the field with the adults, and definitely this year’s league is there to be won, and we’ll have given those young coaches a huge boost,” she enthused.
For now however, it’ll be a journey that will have to be made without a player that was there through thick and thin, since long before many of the current senior panel members were born. With last weekend’s season opening victory against Wicklow done and dusted, the games will come thick and fast. Tyrone, Clare and Kildare are all on the agenda over the next few weeks, and there’s no doubt there will be an adjustment period — on both sides.
“I’ll be able to take a few more shifts in work, and I’ll probably look at going on holiday. I’m not sure really but it’ll definitely be different,” she concluded.
No one will deserve the break from intercounty action more.