Holders host Milford and eye Croker return
OULART-THE BALLAGH sit just 60 minutes from a shot at their second consecutive AllIreland Senior club camogie title as they prepare to face Cork outfit Milford in the semifinal at home on Sunday next (2 p.m.).
It's been a long 18 months for the Wexford side as they made the leap from bridesmaid to bride with a string of clinical, smothering performances that had the camogie world sitting up and taking notice.
Now comes the harder task of retaining a title they claimed against overmatched Drom-Inch of Tipperary in the Croke Park decider of 2012 (3-13 to 0-5, with the Premier women failing to score in the first-half).
Having come through Leinster with a little less swagger than in 2011, following wins over Mullinavat of Kilkenny and Dublin aristocrats Ballyboden St. Enda's, the pressure amps up a notch against a Cork side which, except All-Star Anna Geary and Regina Curtin, don't boast a wide range of wellknown names. While the home support might lack familiarity with a lot of the opposition players, that doesn't mean this will be anything but a stiff test of the All-Ireland champions' resolve.
The fact should also be noted that Oulart have been here before, going into a home semi-final as warm favourites. Late in 2009 Cashel came to town and went home as AllIreland finalists, and it's a fate the hosts will be keen to avoid on Sunday.
This will be a markedly different Oulart side than the one which took to the field in Kildare to claim their fourth consecutive Leinster title. Out goes Colleen Atkinson who is unavailable, but the void caused by the experienced defender in James Meagher's side is filled by Ciara Storey who has temporarily returned from Australia. However, should Oulart advance on Sunday, the daughter of former Wexford legend Martin may not be available for the decider as she is scheduled to return down under in the middle of the month.
Also broken up is the midfield twin duo of Shelley and Stacey Kehoe as, with the latter on her travels, a void needs to be plugged while Emma Moran is also south of the equator. There is some good news further up the field with the two-goal heroine from last year's All-Ireland final, Aideen Brennan, set to return to action after the knee injury she picked up in the county final win over St. Ibar's/Shelmalier.
It's means, all in all, Oulart are a little undermanned and will need big performances from the big-name players - the ever-dependable like the Leacy sisters, Ursula Jacob and Karen Atkinson - but also by the youngsters like Brídín Redmond and the impressive Shauna Sinnott.
The key to this game will be how the rejigged defence deals with the changes and gels as a unit, as Una Leacy and Ursula Jacob will get their share of scores. No stone has been left unturned by the Oulart-The Ballagh management team in getting challenge games organised to bed in the unit and that may prove to be the vital factor. Expect the champions to edge through by three or four points.