Cait DevaneSHE has never won a county senior title, never won a Munster senior medal and never yet played in Croke Park yet Cait Devane (22) was camogie’s ‘ WGPA Player of the Month’ in July and is leading Tipperary’s return to the top. By the time she was 13 she had won two county U12 hurling medals with Clonoulty-Rossmore. Yes, hurling! She was the only girl amid the boys yet filled the pivotal fullback role. She remained the only girl on the team right up to U16 level but the club’s burgeoning female wing is now strong enough to field senior and junior camogie teams.

Tipperary may have been knocked out of the Liberty All-Ireland Championship quarter-finals by Cork recently but Devane is still going at full pelt. Last Saturday night she could be found sharpening her free-taking on the local pitch alongside Timmy Hammersley and played a challenge match against Granagh-Ballingarry next day as part of Clonoulty’s concerted effort to go one better than last year’s county semi-final.

Devane is leading off pitch as well.

This year she was one of just seven women among the 24 elite GAA players taking part in the inaugural Jim Madden Leadership Programme. This is a unique personal development course set up by the family of late Tipperary GAA activist Jim Madden and run by the Gaelic Players’ Associations (GPA/WGPA), designed to produce strong community leaders from within their own ranks.

It involved a series of one-day work-shops and lectures since February and the past week has been particularly hectic as Friday marked D-day for their groups to make their final presentations, which involved designing a project for primary schools. Devane’s group included Mayo’s Jason Doherty and Cork’s Eoin Cadogan and collaborating while trying to juggle work/studies and club/county training has challenged them all logistically and meant social media channels have worked over-time.

“It is a really great programme idea, designed to make you aware of the characteristics you have yourself without maybe not noticing,” she explains. “We’ve met leaders in the business world and also had our own personal mentor. You learn so much but I’d say I probably learnt as much too from the other participants because everyone brings something completely different to it, from their teams and their work and their personal ideas.

“It’s not about pin-pointing your weaknesses but to become aware of your assets and how to maximise them,” Devane stresses and Tipperary’s sharp-shooting full-forward has plenty of those. She has only just completed a degree in PE and Irish yet already secured her “dream job”; teaching in her alma mater in Pres Thurles, a sporty school with whom she once represented Ireland in basketball before concentrating solely on camogie.

The youngest of five, her family is steeped in hurling and lives next-door to Tipp legend Declan Ryan.

Her brother John played county senior and her great grandfather was on the first Tipperary team to win a junior All-Ireland. “We talk non-stop about hurling in our house, people always ask what are the chances of getting  hit by a sliothar at our Christmas dinner,” she jokes.

Devane believes playing alongside boys for so long really helped hone her skills. “It’s not allowed now (U12 is now the cut-off point) but I was the only girl playing right up to U16 and it was fantastic. I felt like that really stood to me because I got exposed to more training and games. The lads didn’t treat me any differently and I didn’t expect to be.”

Tipperary camogie’s glory days – when Deirdre Hughes and Co won five of eight consecutive All-Ireland senior final appearances from 1999-2006 – may have ebbed dramatically but Devane has already starred at colleges’ level and leads a young Premier team who made great strides this year. She contested all of the last four Ashbourne Cup finals with the University of Limerick and they memorably dethroned WIT in 2014. Her UL college teammates and housemates included Niamh O’Dea (Clare) and Julie White (Cork) and the latter, ironically, was Tipp’s chief destroyer in their recent meeting.

Yet there was only a point between themselves and Cork in the Munster final and Devane believes camogie’s round-robin format is helping weaker teams to bridge the gap to the ‘Big Four’ of Cork, Galway, Wexford and Kilkenny. “The beauty of the championship now that is that you are playing week after week so you can get momentum. The only downside is if you pick up injuries,” she notes.

That’s what happened Tipp when, after beating Clare, Derry and Dublin, they got slaughtered (8-15 to 0-4) by Kilkenny on a day when they were missing six first-choice players, including metronomic freetaker Devane. But she believes that recent underage success (Tipp won 2011 All-Ireland minor and the last two U16A titles) is helping them bridge the gap. “We know ourselves that the county has gone through a dry period and some transition but we also know we can’t be dwelling on that. We have to move on and work hard and please God the tables will turn eventually. “This year was massive progress but the important thing now, if we want to try to knock down any of the ‘Big Four’, is to stick our heels in the ground, maintain our position and then push on again next year.”