Cora Staunton won four All-Irelands with Mayo before she took on the sport of AFLW at the age of 36. She told David Hennessy how she adjusted to Aussie Rules with the GWS Giants.
There are now eighteen Irish girls playing with AFLW with most of the clubs in the competition having at least one Irish player. However, Cora Staunton paved the way for every single one of them. When the GWS Giants took a risk and brought her over to play in 2018, it was a gamble. Not only was Cora already 35, GWS Head Coach Alan McConnell had never seen her play in person. Taking the advice of former Cavan county footballer Nick Walsh, who has a coaching role with the Giants, Alan signed Cora up and her success led to the likes of Ailish Considine getting the chance to win an AFLW Premiership. We spoke to her last year as he prepared to take on the AFLW for her second season.
Cora told The Irish World: “People talk about it being down to me that there’s more Irish coming out. Yeah, in part it’s to me but in bigger part it’s to the Giants and in even bigger part it’s probably to Al.
“Al took the risk last year or bringing me out to play the game, very unknown. We had never met each other. He was going off advice from Nick Walsh and then off a few YouTube clips but he took the gamble.
“The gamble probably worked and I think other clubs saw from that there’s potential to take talent out from Ireland. I take probably a little bit of it but I think it’s the Giants that should be taking most of the credit that we’re seeing more Irish girls out here and in the future I think you’ll see even more.”
Despite being a seasoned GAA competitor, the oval-shaped ball represented a whole new challenge to Cora.
“To come down and having to prove yourself, it’s a new challenge but I actually really enjoy that. It’s less pressure on me here than there is at home. To come out and learn a new sport and try and make yourself better day in day out whether it’s in training or in matches: I love that challenge.
“I’m still very unproven. I’ve only had season under my belt. There’s probably a little bit more pressure on me this year but I really like that. As I said last year, every training sesssion to me was like a school day and every match is like an exam.
“Even though today is only a practice match, it’s another test you have to try and pass. Stuff that you’ve learned the last five or six weeks in training you want to try and put that into practice now. The only place you can learn AFL is on match day.
“There’s a huge difference between GAA and AFL. I thought coming out it would be a lot more similar so from that point of view it was hard to get to know the game. It’s a lot more physical. There’s a lot more education around the game, a lot more learning you have to do around structures and plays and stuff so I’m still learning. Even though I’m in my second season, I’m still learning all the time.”
Cora was joined by Donegal’s Yvonne Bonner for the 2019 season.
“The more Irish that’s here the better. Us Irish in the camp seem to take a lot of flack and a lot of the slagging. I’ve been taking that for the last 12 months or so having Yvonne here is having an ally.”
Taking on a more serious tone, Cora continues: “It’s great to see more Irish out here. To have Yvonne in the group, Yvonne’s a smashing GAA player at home and her transition over to AFL has been very smooth. I’m really excited to play in the forward line with her.
“In training there’s probably a connection that we have being Irish people and GAA players, we kind of play quite similar so we can feel that connection already on the pitch. I have an idea where she’s running, she has an idea where I’m running. It’s great.”
Yvonne was not the only Irish addition with Callum Brown from Derry joining the men’s team.
“Obviously Al picked me up last year and then went for Yvonne and the club went for Callum. It’s great there’s three of us from Ireland in the club but the Giants are very much a familiy club. They’re brilliant. You might be a thousand miles away from home but it never feels like that. You always feel like you’re a part of a family and part of something special. That’s what I love about this club and wouldn’t want to play with any other club because there’s such a close connection, everyone looks after each other even though we’re thousands of miles away from home.”
Cora told her story in the autobiography Game Changer when she was the first female GAA star to tell her story. It would be named Irish Sports Book of the Year. Although she had been asked to write it before, Cora felt it was the right time now that her playing days are nearly over.
“I suppose I’ve been asked a couple of times to write a book by a couple of different people. It wasn’t a thing I thought I would ever do and I suppose probably a little bit of pressure came on me to do it.
“I obviously had a documentary crew follow me around Australia last year on my journey with the Giants. I suppose I thought the two go hand in hand and when you’re living in Ireland there’s not many female sports stars that write books.
“My job as a sports person is to try and inspire the younger generations, younger girls growing up. I suppose I felt now was a good time to do it. I had my year over in Australia. My journey in sport is probably coming to an end in the next couple of years so I thought it was a good time to write it. It’s to inspire the younger generation and I’ve known I’ve done that over the last number of months with messages and phone calls and letters and stuff that I’ve gotten from young girls, young boys, parents and people like that. It’s been an experience and something that I’m hugely proud of that I’ve done.
“Of course there’s a lot of stuff in the book that I probably never spoke about. I speak about my mother passing away when I was 16 and how I dealt with that at the time. Looking back as a mature adult, I probably never dealt with it.
“When the book was written, that’s probably 20 years after my mother died and it was probably the first time that I fully openly talked about it. Things like that are hard to look back on but at the same time there’s a lot of young girls and boys that lose a parent. If you can help them and say that life is difficult and even though I’m a sports person and I’m in the public domain, that life isn’t always easy and it’s those challenges that you have in life that probably make you the sports person that you are.”
Cora had a long and successful career with Mayo, winning four All-Irelands, three National Leagues and an incredible eleven All Stars. However, it all came to an acrimonious ending when she walked away from the county in 2018 joined by a number of other players who were unhappy with their treatment by the manager and coaching staff. Does it hurt a little bit that she bowed out of her distinguished inter-county career in such a way?
“As a sports person you want your inter-county career to be a fairytale ending, everyone does. I’m still playing club football when I go back. I’ll try and play right through to when my body doesn’t let me anymore.
“As a sports person you never get the ending that you want. I’ve been extremely, extremely lucky. I’ve played inter-county senior football for 24 years, since I was 13, I’ve won everything there is to be won in the game. I’ve been very, very lucky with injuries. There’s many people that their careers can end at 21, 22. I’ve been lucky that my body has let me keep playing.
“The game has given me so much: This Australian journey, my friends. It’s given me huge opportunities in life so it’s obviously a little bit sad. But if you look at the bigger picture at other sports people and the way their careers might end and they never get the opportunities that I’ve got… I had 24 brilliant years with Mayo, won All-Irelands, got to climb the Hogan Stand and lift the cup and I’ve done that numerous times with my club as well.
“While Mayo is finsished now, Carnachon has always been there. The Giants is here and that’s my main focus. You never look back. You look forward and I’m looking forward to the challenge of the AFLW season three and going back and playing with Carnachon when I get home.”
Cora suffered a horrific leg break in 2019 after this interview. Although it may have finished another player’s career, she returned for the 2020 season and could very well return to play AFLW in 2021 at the age of 39.