Journey of discovery brings Bray and Waterford to elite levels

May 25, 2024

Tipperary's Niamh Tracey and Lorraine Bray of Waterford. ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan.

by Daragh Ó Conchúir

An indicator of that progress made by the Waterford senior camogie team in recent years can be found very clearly in an interview given by Lorraine Bray in August 2021.

Bray and her Déise colleagues were preparing for a Glen Dimplex All-Ireland senior quarter-final against Tipperary. They would go on to lose that game but it represented a new building block after a period of supreme doubt.

That season had threatened to go off the rails altogether, with relegation to Division 1B of the Very National League. After losing to Limerick in the Munster semi-final, they played host to a Down team playing senior championship for the first time in 22 years.

They fell four points behind in the second half but with Niamh Rockett shooting six from play, the Déise girls reeled the visitors in and Beth Carton struck an injury-time winner.

Bray made no bones at the time about the importance of that game. It was Derek Lyons’ first year at the helm and the following season, they gave Cork a big fright in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Then last year, with Seán Fleming taking the reins, they reached the blue riband for the first time in 78 years. It proved a chastening experience as Cork galloped off into the sunset but it was a million miles from that day in the trenches against the Mourne women.

“We’ve been on a massive journey over the last two to three years and it’s brilliant to see for the girls who’ve been around for years – a few of us have been around the block for a while –to see that progression. We haven’t been at a standstill. We’ve wanted to drive on and get up to the level that others are at and stay with them,” says Bray.

The Cappoquinn midfielder, who will be 28 in October, is captain this year again and now a three-time All-Star. Her talents have been illustrated to a wider audience with Waterford’s more regular appearances at the business end of affairs.

Her game has gone to new levels but the childcare worker in Ballyporeen has worked hard at personal development too. participating in the Jim Madden GPA Leadership Programme was a critical part of that.

“I’d heard of some of the players that had gone through the programme and I’d only heard positive things about it.

“It really goes into depth on learning about yourself. I thought it was something that I’d have liked to look into and something that I neglected for a long time. So it gave me great insight into my own capabilities of things. I was capable of doing but mightn’t have felt at the time I was capable of doing.

“There were a lot of personal learnings out of it but also when it came to new leadership roles in work.

“That whole programme was totally out of my comfort zone. When I heard was happening on some of the days, I thought, ‘Oh my God, how will I face this,’ but everyone on it was on the same boat. Everyone there was feeling the exact same way and you have to remember that as well.”

She always wanted to work with children and loves her job.

“The energy levels have to be high for here and at training too,” she says, laughing.

As we know, there are no problems in that regard for the epitome of perpetual motion.

There were people who believed that the increasing physicality in camogie would wipe out the impact of diminutive operators like Bray and Aoife Donohue. What it has done, in allowing the game to flow, is given them the canvas on which they can utilise their entire palette of wonder. Their stickwork, mind-boggling speed and athleticism are fully unleashed.

Given her own apparently bottomless reservoir of energy, it says something that new manager, Jerry Wallace impresses her for vigour.

“He’s probably one of the most energetic men I’ve met in my life. He’s just full of energy. I don’t think I’ve seen him have a bad day. He always tries to put a positive spin on things.

“Now, we get told off at times when we need to be, but he definitely tries to see the positive things and take massive learnings from any of the teams we’ve played.”

It’s funny working behind enemy territory this week, ahead of the 4.30pm throw-in at The Ragg this evening. Waterford have a history with Tipp. They proved a stumbling block for many years until last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.

They followed that up again with victory in the first round of the League but of course Denis Kelly’s side went on to end a 20-year famine in terms of national titles by accounting for Galway in the Division 1 League final.

“They were a big hurdle to get over and thankfully we got over that first hurdle and we haven’t looked back. Probably there’ll be days when you’ll have losses and you’ll have to pick yourself up again but we know that that’s not a hurdle to us anymore and we don’t have fear going into those games.

“I think we’re all fairly even. You don’t know what a team is going to bring at times and it depends on what way you set up in certain games as well.

“We played Cork in the League and it was very low scoring (1-6 to 0-6) and it was a total different game compared to other games we played in the League. So a lot of it depends on how you set up against teams as well.

“But I do think it’s a very level playing field. And in every sense you can see development over the last two to three years. But that fear factor is definitely something we’ve gotten over.”

That game against Cork was an important one. Putting the 19-point beating by the Rebels in the All-Ireland final wasn’t easy.

“It’s not as easy to park as people would think. We had a bit of nervousness going to play Cork in the League… thankfully we put in a very good performance in that game. It was a very good game, nip and tuck between the two of us and I think that alone put what happened last year to bed. And we needed that.

“That gave us greater kick going into the Munster final. It didn’t go our way unfortunately but again it was a battle and there was nothing between us.”

The cruciate knee ligament injury suffered by Vikki Falconer two minutes into the game was an undoubted factor in the All-Ireland final. Not alone was the defender missed for her marking abilities and leadership – she was vying with Carton and Bray for player of the year honours at that point - but to see such a popular and important figure felled in such a manner is a psychological gut punch that is hard to recover from when you are not accustomed to operating in such a rarefied atmosphere.

It was tremendous to see her name appearing on the panel for the Munster final.

“She’s been there from the start of the year. She’s a massive leader in the camp and been around even when she couldn’t train. Slowly she’s coming back, doing running and stuff. Sometimes we’re nervous looking at her but we’re delighted to see her coming back into action because what a year she had last year and that was why she got a deserving All-Star.”

They could have done with the Munster final being on a week earlier, so the week has been about recovery mostly. But they know Tipp well. And after all that has occurred in the first half of the season, this is what it’s all about.

“There’s an excitement around the All-Ireland championship every year. That’s what you’re training for, that’s what the cold, wet nights of winter are for. We’re looking forward to it.”

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