Blockbuster camogie semi-final boils down to last four standing
By Daragh Ó Conchúir
And then there was only four.
Kilkenny v Tipperary, LIT Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, 5.30pm
This is one of the deadliest rivalries in Gaelic Games, and it is fantastic to see it played out on one of the biggest stage of the Camogie calendar once more.
Kilkenny have, of course, been regulars at this level, and are serial Semi-Final victors, pursuing a fourth consecutive Final appearance and a sixth in seven seasons.
On the other hand, Tipperary haven’t dined at the top table since 2006 when among the panel was Mary Ryan, who has had a stellar season so far. They haven’t won the O’Duffy Cup since the previous year, when their skipper was the unrelated Joanne Ryan, back in the fold on the Intermediate squad that claimed Division 2 League honours this year and has also reached the penultimate hurdle of their Championship.
The Intermediates are returning to the last four and so too are the Seniors, which is indicative of the progression that has been made and a pleasing consistency of performance. This has been done while introducing some of the All-Ireland Minor runners-up of 2015, the champions of 2016 and a handful of the current talented squad too.
This campaign has had its well-publicised tribulations, not least the loss of manager Bill Mullaney for health reasons, but the remaining mentors took up the cudgel, with Niamh Lillis the public face of what she emphasises is a group effort.
The Premiers came through the group stages with four consecutive wins to finish second, overcoming losses during games of key individuals such as Orla O’Dwyer and Karen Kennedy, in a couple of those ties to advance.
They then withstood an early Limerick onslaught to grind out a win in the Semi-Final. O’Dwyer was magnificent at Semple Stadium that evening, with Kennedy, Niamh Treacy and Mary Ryan, filling in at full-back due to the injury of Gemma Grace, having already played centre-back and midfield this season, others to shine. Cáit Devane worked selflessly as usual and on a difficult evening for freetakers, was unerring from placed balls. Megan Ryan has been a real goal threat throughout the campaign running from deep positions while the younger element is represented by the likes of Grace O’Toole. Nicole Walsh has recovered from concussion to be a major option from the bench and Clodagh Quirke is an excellent team captain.
Kilkenny have taken off the shackles this year, having deployed Anne Dalton as sweeper in recent seasons and withdrawn numbers to clog up the middle third in preparation largely for the Cork challenge. The 2016 champions only lost the last two deciders to the Rebels by the minimum margin on each occasion but it appears that Ann Downey has decided to go for the jugular this time around.
While the Stripeywomen have always had heavy scorers, they have ramped it up this term with five individuals recording 3-10 or more in just four games: Dalton, Denise Gaule, Katie Power, Michelle Quilty and Miriam Walsh.
The repositioning of Dalton has clearly been the most notable aspect of this shift in emphasis. It should be remembered that the St. Lachtain’s legend earned three All-Stars at centre-back and is the reigning Player of the year, but she was player of the year a decade ago as a midfielder, from where she earned her other three All-Stars gongs. Most of this season has seen her operating across the half-forward line, with the odd midfield appearance, and in accumulating 5-10 from play, at an average of just over 1-3 a game, is her side’s leading scorer.
Dalton also got a goal as Kilkenny launched an ultimately fruitless second-half rally in the League Final against Galway but they gained some measure of recompense for that defeat, albeit with no silverware on the line, when having two points to spare over the Tribeswomen in the opening tie of the Championship. Comfortable victories were registered subsequently against Wexford, Offaly and Limerick.
If Tipperary can get enough possession, and get the deployment of Mary Ryan right – marker or springboard for attacks – they do have the artillery to ask questions of a Kilkenny defence that possesses plenty of redoubtable operators such as Edwina Keane, Emma Kavanagh, Grace Walsh and Collette Dormer but has been largely untested since the Galway outing.
They have also shown that they possess the mindset to roll with the punches, as well as the quality to land a killer blow but Kilkenny exude a sense that the whole year has been about September 8th after their last two agonising near-misses and will be hot favourites.
Cork v Galway, LIT Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, 7.15pm
It was notable how Galway manager Cathal Murray eschewed anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of his players’ first-half failings in their Quarter-Final victory against Waterford. That isn’t to say that the players didn’t hear all about it in the dressing room at the interval or again at training since.
But Murray praised Waterford, and rightly so, for the Déise found a new level of performance and maturity.
What’s more, he emphasised the brilliance of his players after the resumption, indicating his belief that they are the equal or better of anyone when hitting top form, and that they possess the necessary mental fortitude to turn things around during a game.
While the former had never been in question, it was doubted whether Galway possessed sufficient self-belief, or a capacity to reverse their fortunes in real time. They do look to have become a steelier crew, physically and mentally since Murray came into the fold after last year’s National League.
Certainly, the manner in which they fended off the Kilkenny rally in the League Final in March and overcame a significant wobble to finish strongly and take the spoils was significant.
Their group got underway with a rematch against the Cats, who had two points to spare at the final whistle, having always been on top in a tight affair. While that was a disappointment, it wasn’t terminal and they are in the same stages of the competition now as if they had won that game.
They haven’t always fired on full cylinders, most notably against Limerick in the group stage, but were never going to lose that, while proving far too strong for Offaly and Wexford to secure primary seeding for the Quarter-Finals.
Waterford provided a real shock to the system and Carrie Dolan’s accuracy from placed balls was crucial to keep them in touch. And but for Sarah Healy’s two brilliant saves early in the second-half, with Waterford leading by four points, who knows what might have eventuated.
But as confidence soared, skipper Sarah Dervan drove on her charges from full-back, Niamh Kilkenny began to make her presence known at midfield and with the full-forward line finally in receipt of ammunition, Ailish O’Reilly and Noreen Coen fired the vital shots.
O’Reilly’s goal killed Waterford off and she has scored 5-15 from five games to date, while Coen is on 1-11. Dolan’s 10 points brought her to 27. Aoife Donohue, Heather Cooney, Tara Kenny and Lorraine Ryan are other key individuals.
Cork finished with a points difference of +83 in Group 2. That runners-up Tipperary were on +5 is an indication of their total supremacy. One area that seems to be established more than any other now is their conditioning, where the added years of elite preparation in this regard compared to many of their rivals, has seen them blow teams away in the second-half, when games have been competitive in the first.
A panel that has claimed the last two All-Ireland titles has been strengthened by the introduction of last year’s All-Ireland-winning Minors and Intermediates, Saoirse McCarthy and Clíona Healy, while Laura Hayes, another member of the 2018 Minors, is in her second season on the panel and Ciara McCarthy is another teenager making their presence felt.
Yet Cork still possesses as strong and experienced a spine as you could wish for, from Aoife Murray, her successor as captain Gemma O’Connor, Orla Cotter and the Mackey sisters Katrina and Pamela. Amy O’Connor continues to be a threat and Linda Collins has benefited from a consistent 2018 to become firmly established in the attack.
Paudie Murray’s squad have gone about their business remarkably quietly for a crew pursuing a three-in-a-row. Failure to get to the League Final would not have caused any sleepless nights but the concern for Murray and his backroom staff will be facing a Galway team that had a real workout a fortnight previously, while not having played themselves for four weeks.
It is not a situation they are unaccustomed to however, and one recalls them being pushed all the way by the same opposition in similar circumstances two years ago. We can expect a cracker once again.