by Daragh Ó Conchúir
They were horrified when she flashed over that injury-time winner last year and will be desperate to prevent a repeat tomorrow but at least a couple of the Kilkenny players will have had understood the journey Julia White travelled to even be togged out in Croke Park last September.
It was towards the end of 2015 and the Cork attacker had the world at her feet. She had bagged her fourth Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship medal and started a new job teaching in Kilkenny city’s famed Loreto nursery.
Looking to make some friends in a new place, she joined up with a seven-a-side soccer crew that included Anne Dalton and Denise Gaule. They were there the Saturday her Achilles tendon snapped.
“It was a freak accident” recalls White. “When it first happened it felt like somebody kicked me. I turned around to look who had done it and there was nobody there. I just hopped back up – you’d be used to getting knocks. Then I went to run off and collapsed. You’re disconnected from your body, there was no support. So it wasn’t so much the pain initially. It was just that my foot wouldn’t work.”
The following year was a write-off. It is funny now that she uses the same term to describe 2017, even though her name will be indelibly linked with the campaign as she claimed her fifth title and Cork’s record 27th in the most dramatic fashion. It was hard to feel a part of it that summer though, when you were doing one-on-ones with conditioning coach and psychology master Martin O’Brien, rather than out on the pitch with her teammates.
“It was going fine and then I fractured my foot around March, April. We didn’t pick up on it properly until June and I didn’t really get sorted until the end of July so that was a killer. It was a race against time then. Obviously it ended nicely but 2017 was a bit of a write-off really, apart from those few minutes.”
In truth, “those few minutes” were Hollywood storybook material because White’s trials had extended beyond even a broken foot and ruptured Achilles tendon.
In 2008, when the Douglas prodigy was captain of Cork Minors, on the Intermediate team and in her first year as a panellist with the Seniors, she was struck down by glandular fever. It has continued to linger over her, flaring up again in 2012 and causing her to miss the All-Ireland Final, when she was scheduled to lead her team out as skipper.
There was another bout in 2014 but by now, she was able to recognise the signs and manage the situation. Manager Paudie Murray gave her a month off and she was back doing damage on the pitch for the Rebels at HQ that September.
“You’re not getting the best of yourself and it affects you mentally then” she says of the glandular fever. “You think you’re not fit or you’re just not performing, which is a disaster.”
The struggles on the pitch prompted ongoing battles in her head. And she acknowledges that had she had her way, she would not be playing with Cork now.
“When the fractured foot happened, I definitely wanted to give up. I tried to give up I suppose, being honest. I just had a really good support network. With family, seeing people around me like Briege Corkery, who were never-say-die, and definitely Paudie has shown great belief in me. But I wanted to give up. I made the phone call. ‘I can’t do it.’ But they all rallied around me.
“Mazzer (O’Brien) would have worked a lot with me. Through his sheer annoying me – he wouldn’t leave me alone – I kept going. He’s just annoying! Sometimes you’d get three phone calls a day off him. He’s a great way of knowing if you’re up or down. I would give a lot of credit to him and to Paudie, for having him involved with us and having the belief in me and not letting me give up.
“My lowest moment was last summer, at the height of the championship. I had gotten over the worst thing I thought could happen with the Achilles tendon. Then that happened and I knew my summer was gone.
“I did get back and at least I could make a difference but it was readjusting from wanting to play to being helpful to the team and there’s the ego there then as well.”
The ego has had to deal with the inevitable impact the Achilles injury has had on what was a paint-stripping level of pace as well. Her game is probably more rounded now as a result as she can no longer rely on burning an opponent.
“That was one of the big things I struggled with. When we used to go down to the track I would have been the fastest in the team or up there with the Mackeys anyway. It was definitely a reality check – I wasn’t middle of the road, I was the slowest. Since then, I’ve come up a bit but it’s not what it was. I held onto that for a while – I refused to let that one go – but that’s definitely a work in progress, to improve it and also get over it. It was myself again. Paudie and the lads had no issue with it. I had to leave it go.
“I just had to adjust my mind a bit that maybe I wasn’t going to be starting on the team but they still wanted me and it was me having to accept that and once I did, it was fine. They’d seen me long enough, they knew what I could do and they helped me get belief back in myself.”
Such was the confidence Murray, O’Brien and co showed in her, she actually thought she might start the Final.
“If I was picking a team, I wouldn’t have been picking me but they made me believe that I could so I had that belief in myself. Coming onto the pitch, I knew I could do something.”
She had done everything asked of her to get there, done all the mental exercises, eaten her 10 eggs a day, travelled whatever road directed to do so. And it paid off.
Her experiences have provided her with context. And with that has come a desire to have a more balanced life. Camogie will always be important but it’s not world poverty. As Malachy O’Rourke told his Fermanagh players in 2008, there are a million (sic) Chinese people who couldn’t give two hoots about what happens on a pitch in Ireland.
“I love Camogie and I love sport. Maybe it changes as you get older anyway but it’s not the MOST important thing. It does give you a bit of freedom to think like that, you’re not afraid to make mistakes and you’re going to be fine if you have a bad match.
“I was nearly a bit obsessive about getting back and then as the season progressed, I found a bit more of a balance because I accepted I wasn’t going to be starting and needed to enjoy life a bit more. I think I learned that as I went through the injuries – it’s not all about Camogie. So after the Final, I enjoyed a few months of meeting people, eating, having a few drinks.
“But in the back of my mind I had that ‘I want to play next year.’ And that’s what I’ve tried to do. I wouldn’t be taking anything for granted and I’m still struggling now believing that I’m playing. I’m just trying to take it game by game.
“People say they wouldn’t change anything…” she laughs because the likelihood is that she might tweak one or two. “I’ve become stronger through the different things that have happened. Obviously it hasn’t been all plain sailing but you live and you learn.”
Now 27 and back teaching at Christ King Girls’ Secondary School, where she attended herself, White has enjoyed a summer mercifully lacking in drama, enjoying training with the group and playing “whether playing good or bad” and in whatever role required of her.
Despite often having a deep-lying industrious role, she has popped up with four goals throughout the summer. The process of fortifying her self-confidence is ongoing.
“Do I have the freedom that I had when I was 18? Maybe not but I definitely lost a bit of my pace – that’s a fact and I really struggled with that for a long while and it was more about reinventing my game a little bit with Mazzer. I’ve a different game than I had and that confidence is continuing to build. I’m not as confident in areas that I was but I’m all the time gaining confidence in areas that I’ve recently worked on more.
“I’m getting more comfortable adapting to whatever seems to happen and buying into being whatever I need to be on the day. I think I can be adaptable. I am enjoying it. I’m enjoying going training. I’m enjoying being healthy and exercising and being with your friends, and at a high standard. It doesn’t get higher than this.
“It’s about having perspective as well. I’ve definitely got a good bit of perspective and things could be a lot worse.”