Dermot Crowe: Breaking new ground on final day as Kilkenny look to bury pain of defeat
Galway v Kilkenny, All-Ireland Senior Final, time: 4.15pm, venue: Croke Park, TV: RTÉ2
The most conspicuous date in the camogie calendar is upon us with some of the game's most talented players on parade in Croke Park today.
In the main event, Galway bring a dash of novelty, making a first appearance in the senior final in four years and attempting to win the O'Duffy Cup for the first time in six. They face Kilkenny, who won in 2016, and have been in five of the last six finals. The black and amber aim to avoid the heartache of losing a third final in a row.
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The intermediate contest has Galway also represented and looking to repeat the intermediate/senior double achieved in 2013, with the 2017 Premier Junior winners Westmeath in opposition. In the day's curtain raiser, Kerry return for a second stab at that junior title, after losing to Dublin last year. From a county with only one senior club, a win would bolster the game's appeal and it is hoped establish a greater infrastructure on the ground. Limerick stand in their way.
Kerry reached the final last year only five months after winning the Division 3 league title and this year they have that experience to lean on and a season of playing in Division 2 behind them. They will be hoping to follow Dublin's lead; they won the junior title last year, a year after losing the final the season before.
The senior final is a repeat of the league final back in May when Galway won (0-16 to 2-8) and made a statement that they were ready to seriously challenge in the championship this year. While they began their campaign with a two-point loss to Kilkenny, they recovered to reach the semi-final where they had a thrilling win over Cork, the reigning champions. The mettle they showed in ending Cork's designs on three-in-a-row will give them justified confidence that they can bring the cup across the Shannon.
In the league final they had to withstand a Kilkenny comeback and show similar steel, after leading by six points at half-time, with Aoife Donohue, Niamh Kilkenny and Shauna Healy outstanding. When they hit the first two scores of the second half, Galway appeared well placed to drive on for a comfortable victory but goals from Michelle Quilty and Anne Dalton had Kilkenny within a point by the 47th minute.
But they were sufficiently sturdy to steady themselves and hold out to win a first league since 2015 and end Kilkenny's hopes of a fourth title in succession.
Kilkenny, defeated by Cork in the last two All-Ireland finals, continue to be managed by Ann Downey, although there were changes to her backroom team over the winter months. Among the new arrivals was Brian Dowling, the former Kilkenny hurler, who won league and All-Ireland medals in the earlier part of the last decade. Dowling, a tidy forward from O'Loughlin Gaels, has been working on the team's attacking strategies and trying to broaden that dimension of Kilkenny's game.
Last year's final ended in a bitter defeat when Cork won with a controversial late free, leading to fresh criticism of the game's policing and some of the rules which are seen as too stringent on physical contact and which are currently under review.
Camogie has evolved on all fronts and there is increasing pressure to get rid of some rules altogether, like the handpassed goal which was once allowed in the men's game, hard as it is to believe now. In 1981 Johnny Flaherty won Offaly's first All-Ireland with one such score. In the 1970s, Kerry and Dublin's feted Gaelic footballers often handpassed the ball past a helpless goalkeeper before the laws changed.
Camogie has now long passed the point where such allowances are necessary, the players having sufficient mastery of the hurley not to be relying on concessions from the game's law makers. Recent finals have been without goals and scorelines have stayed relatively low compared to hurling. Ten points won the final two years ago. The winning total last year was 14 points. The majority of the scores in last year's final came from frees. But those considerations won't detain the ladies hoping to bring home silverware today.
It never matters to a player how they win, after all, so long as they do, even if the spectator might wish differently and the sports' administrations are understandably alert to the game's mood swings and public appeal. In 1998 the senior final was televised live for the first time and this year all three finals will have that privilege, which is new ground.
The screening of the quarter-finals and semi-finals also points to an increasing confidence and trust in the game's intrinsic value as a spectacle capable of winning the public's affections.
Last year Galway lost by three points to Kilkenny in Thurles at the semi-final stage. They were also beaten by a goal by Cork in the semi-final in 2017. In 2016 they lost to Kilkenny in the semi-final by two points. This year's win over Cork, then, represented a leap forward and confirmed that the form they showed in the spring was genuine.
Their recent history with Kilkenny includes victory in the 2013 Al-Ireland final and a loss a year later in the semi finals. After defeating Cork this year, with eight of the team that lost to Cork in 2017, the player of the match Niamh Kilkenny said they had been "bullied" off the field two years earlier. Their tenacity was a notable part of the win over Cork this year.
Galway have won the All-Ireland senior title just twice. Kilkenny's most recent win in 2016 ended a long 22-year wait. Perhaps the pain of losing the last two will give Downey's side a narrow advantage this time but all recent meetings with Galway suggests that the margin is extremely fine.
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