By Kevin Egan
CORA Staunton's return to the Mayo colours for a 24th successive championship campaign will be a huge boost to the county's chances of winning back the TG4 Connacht senior title from holders Galway, provided that other players don't just sit back and let the Carnacon legend take on all the responsibility.
That's the verdict of Niamh Kelly, who's likely to be one of the players charged with the task of feeding Staunton the ammunition she needs to fire Mayo back to the top in the Western Province.
"When Cora wasn't here for the League it was a great opportunity for the younger players to step up and become leaders on the team because we always relied on her so much," said Kelly.
"It was great for the younger players to be able to step up. Now that she's back it's fantastic news, we all really admire Cora. She is a fantastic player and one of the best in the game. To have her back is a massive asset to the team. She is a great leader but we have to make sure we don't go back to type. Everyone needs to carry on the form they showed in the League, to show leadership and not to take a back seat just because she's on the field".
Some pundits expected Mayo to struggle during the Lidl National League campaign in Staunton's absence, but instead the 2017 TG4 All-Ireland finalists defied those low expectations and got back to a decider, only to be defeated once again by Dublin in a national decider.
While she would have loved to have picked up a League winner's medal, Kelly is delighted with how the Spring campaign went in terms of player development.
"The League was definitely a good foundation for the championship," she says.
"It gave a lot of new girls that confidence going into championship who have never been there before. It was very good. We obviously had ups and downs in some games. We were unlucky in the final. It just didn't go our way. But Dublin are a fantastic team, credit where credit is due."
In time, getting up to speed with Dublin will be the big challenge for this team, but as with any Mayo side, the prospect of taking on Galway in a Connacht final means that all other goals for the season are parked to the side while Connacht's two traditional powers prepare to go head to head.
"There is always a huge rivalry there with Galway, there always will be" said Kelly. "But Galway there were the only team to beat Dublin in the league. They are definitely up there.
"There are four or five teams that are there around the same level. They were very unlucky to lose to Dublin in the League semi-final so it will absolutely take a very good performance to beat them.
"I'm sure it could go any way, but we certainly won't be short on motivation."
"We always want to beat Galway," she continued.
"We are all going to go in all-guns-blazing for Galway. It would be great, even for our confidence, to beat them in a Connacht final."
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