By Steve Wilson
Irish AFLW star Cora Staunton poses with balls from the two of the codes she has excelled in. (Supplied: GWS Giants AFLW)
She’s Gaelic football royalty two games from leading an AFLW team to a first, improbable crown.
“One of the greatest Irish sportswomen of all-time,” according to those who know.
Yet almost anonymous when turning out on ovals across Australia this summer in front of many who perhaps don’t.
Playing a sport she first tried just three months ago.
The woman in question is Cora Staunton, the first international recruit to the women’s league when she joined a revamped playing roster at GWS Giants for season two.
A leader. A legend back home. A Swiss Army knife of a footballer. And one of the most decorated athletes playing team sport in this country today.
Cora Staunton’s leadership has been as important to the Giants on the training track as on the field.
Victory over Brisbane in their final regular season match on Friday would all but guarantee the Giants, last season’s wooden spoon ‘winners’, a ticket to the big dance.
“It would be huge,” says Staunton of the prospect of adding to her overflowing personal trophy cabinet.
“It’s such a different sport. There are Irish lads who have come over and played the sport well, but it’s taken two if not three years [for them] to break properly in to the team, never mind get to a grand final.”
It’s almost impossible to overstate just how big a star Staunton is. Not just in women’s football but in Irish sport full stop.
Four All Ireland titles with Mayo. Another six with her club side, Carnacon. And 10 All Star Awards in a career that has spanned more than 20 years and began in the senior women’s team when she was just 13 years old.
Having also successfully turned her hand to soccer (wining a domestic cup in the process) and rugby union (just the seven tries on debut for Castlebar Ladies, whom she captained to a league title) there is seemingly no limit to her footballing intelligence.
An Irish documentary team has been despatched to chronicle her every move in Australia. Her exploits in the AFLW are splashed across the sports pages of Irish newspapers.
“There’s no one quite like her,” one seasoned reporter wrote recently. “Cora Staunton is one of the greatest Irish sportswomen of all-time.”
Staunton’s stellar career
- Four All-Ireland senior ladies football titles with Mayo Ladies
- 10 All-Star Awards
- Six All-Ireland senior ladies football club titles with Carnacon
- FAI Women’s Cup (domestic title) – Mayo Ladies League
- Connacht Women’s League title – Castlebar Ladies
- 6 games for GWS Giants AFLW
So how has she ended up here?
A chance meeting with Nick Walsh, a compatriot and coach with the men’s GWS AFL team, when the pair were at an event promoting Irish sport in China sowed the seed.
They talked at length about the Australian game. Staunton’s interest was piqued.
When vaunted coach Allan McConnell took over at the Giants last year, the first thing he asked of Walsh was Staunton’s number.
McConnell’s son flew over to Ireland to put an oval ball in Staunton’s hands and filmed the results to send back to Australia.
What McConnell senior saw convinced him that, with enough work and finessing, Staunton could make the grade.
A day before the draft, when Staunton was taken as number 47, she visited the club for the first time.
It seemed a perfect fit. She signed the next day.
Transitioning “from the top of my sport at home to maybe the bottom of the ladder here,” she says, is a challenge she relishes.
She had walked out of one change room a champion (her last game for Carnacon was an All-Ireland final victory in December) and into another a relative unknown.
“There was perhaps a nervousness from the team about someone coming from another country and picking up their sport,” she says.
Cora Staunton has won four All-Ireland county titles with Mayo across a 23 year career. (Supplied: Mayo LGFA)
“It would be the same if someone came from Australia and walked in to my club or county — of course you want to know a bit about them. They’ve told me I was well googled…”
Starting over, Staunton had to earn the trust and respect of a new set of team-mates.
“I don’t feel I’m in any way a superstar, I have to work for what I achieve on the pitch,” she says.
“One of the first things I said, even before I signed the contract, was that if I’m not good enough to play you don’t pick me to play just because of who I am.
“I don’t just want to be put on the team for being an international recruit. I have to earn my kit, and I think the girls saw that after the first few weeks of training.”
Football skills can be learned. But winning personalities are born.
This AFLW season Staunton, at 36 years of age one of the oldest players in the competition, has not always been the quickest, strongest or most mobile on show.
But she has usually been the most determined, the most street smart, the most canny; a football brain so large it can even overcome a change in rules.
“The older girls in the group maybe bring a bit of calmness to the team, a bit of composure and a bit of leadership, to help guide especially the younger girls in the team along,” Staunton says, aware of her role in the team beyond kicking goals, of which she has landed four so far.
But goals are still the currency she deals in first, and on which she is ultimately judged.
Traditionally, Irish recruits to Australian football have had to undertake a long apprenticeship coming to terms with the vagaries of an oval ball.
All of which makes Staunton’s immediate transition to Aussie rules all the more remarkable.
“People can see that I’m still kicking around the corner, I’m not doing the Aussie kick drop punt,” she admits.
“Even within this club there are probably people not happy with that because it’s not the right thing to be done.”
This last line is delivered with a broad grin. Staunton is enjoying herself here.
Even in the autumn of her career, the passion still burns.
And with experience, even that from another league on the other side of the world, carries a confidence in doing things her own way.
So will Staunton prove a standard bearer, a pioneer who has blazed a trail for others to follow?
The synergy between the two codes, she believes, means there should be nothing to stop others following her to Australia, or other teams taking a leaf out of the Giants play book and searching the counties and clubs of Ireland for potential talent.
Victory for the Giants against the Western Bulldogs has kept them in finals contention. (AAP: Lukas Coch)
She’s already been fielding calls from friends. Her reports on the quality and professionalism of the AFLW have been glowing.
That, however, is for the future.
In the present, Staunton is focused squarely on Friday night and continuing an unbeaten run that began in round three.
The Giants were no-one’s pick for a grand final spot. But the possibility is now close enough to almost touch.
A win over Brisbane, who themselves have a shot of the final, she says, would be “the stuff of dreams”.
Dreams don’t always come true. But, just sometimes, they can.
By a turn of fate, this decisive weekend in the AFLW is also the weekend of St Patricks Day. Irish eyes may well be smiling through a few dusty hangovers on Sunday, if Staunton has anything to do with it.