Camogie: Cats aiming to scupper Rebels' bid for three-in-a-row
A week after Kilkenny's failed attempt to win three-in-a-row, their county's camogie team will be bidding to derail another triple bid in Croke Park this afternoon. It is a good stretch since Ann Downey, manager of the current Kilkenny side, captained her county to their last senior All-Ireland win in 1994.
Kilkenny's last two final appearances ended in defeat - to Galway in 2013 and Cork a year later. Having successfully defended their title last season, Cork are favourites to win a third in succession for their first time since the early 1970s. There is also the beguiling prospect of becoming the most successful county in the history of the championship - victory would bring Cork a record 27th title, moving them one ahead of Dublin on the roll of honour. Cork also contest the intermediate final against Kilkenny, one of the day's curtain-raisers, while the junior final sees Carlow challenging for the first time, facing Armagh.
Both senior finalists had to play through extra time to qualify, surviving two semi-final matches which Catherine Neary, the Camogie Association President, said were glowing testimony to the game's spectator appeal. "People were blown away by the speed and technical skill on display," she said, "and we're looking forward to more of the same."
Kilkenny have endured a series of set-backs during their valley period, including high-profile losses to Cork in the finals of 2009 and 2014, as well as last year's semi-final. All of their last six All-Ireland final appearances have ended in defeat.
Their manager, Downey, acknowledges that a win is overdue. "You have a team on top for a long time and then others take over," she says. "Wexford came on the scene and were very strong and Kilkenny could never match them, and you had other counties who were successful - like Tipperary and Cork. I suppose 22 years is too long. We had won seven All-Irelands in a row. But we were unlucky too in getting to finals a few times and not getting over the line."
Cork overcame a fierce challenge from Wexford in their semi final, 0-19 to 0-15, having lost to Wexford earlier in the campaign by a goal. It was their only defeat in their group, which featured comfortable wins over Waterford, Clare, Offaly and Limerick.
Kilkenny had a battling semi-final win over Galway, 3-15 to 1-19, helped by a crucial goal from Anne Dalton in the first period of extra time. Kilkenny met Cork in the league earlier in the year, where Cork were narrow 1-09 to 0-11 winners. Last year's championship semi-final win over Kilkenny was more comprehensive, 4-10 to 1-10.
Downey has some able backroom assistance in former Kilkenny hurlers Conor Phelan and Paddy Mullally, both team selectors, while Liam Egan, formerly of John Lockes, Callan, is the team's strength and conditioning trainer. Downey's twin sister, Angela, and Mullally's sister Bridget were also on the last team to win an All-Ireland 22 years ago.
Downey, a 12-time All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny, took over from Fintan Deegan - who left after one year of what was to be a three-year term. Downey had previous stints in management and captained the county to the All-Ireland in 1989 as well as '94.
"Paddy (Mullally) and I worked together in Waterford IT (winning an All-Ireland colleges title in 2015) and we spoke about it," she adds. "We said if we were going to do it we were going to do it together - and get Conor (Phelan) in as well (Phelan is the GAA development officer at WIT). So we knew each other. Paddy does the coaching and he was involved with Glenmore when they won the All-Ireland junior title this year."
Downey arrived at a time of uncertainty, with some players signalling they were no longer able to commit. She made no wild promises, except to guarantee hard work and to urge patience. But she felt they were close to reaching their ultimate goal, citing the Galway defeat among a number of close misses.
Speaking earlier in the year, she said Kilkenny needed stiffer opposition before facing a team of Cork's calibre, something she felt hadn't been available to them last year. Cork have had to deal with significant losses too. After winning the title in 2014, coming from five points down to Kilkenny at half time to win by six, they shed 12 players from the panel, but still managed to retain their title a year later.
"We had a great run in the League and beat Galway in the League final," says Downey of their year so far, "but Championship is different, and Galway beat us in the group stages and took us to extra time when we met them in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Winning the League was great, but it's a platform for the Championship, really.
"I came back as junior manager in 2002 and we won the All-Ireland, and then I had a year as senior manager in 2011 and intermediate manager - we won the intermediate. Through WIT, seeing a lot of the Kilkenny players, I knew the talent was there and it was a real challenge to manage Kilkenny again - and one I was looking forward to.
"There's a few new faces and we made some positional switches. Meighan Farrell was injured last year for most of it. She has nailed down a place. Katie Power was struggling with injury last year. Julie Ann Malone has come in. There's a couple of changes to the team and a good few changes to the panel.
"We probably haven't enough senior clubs in Kilkenny at the moment and winning an All-Ireland would help keep the youngsters playing the game. It is about getting back to the days when we were playing - when we would have busloads going to matches from every parish in the county."
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