Wednesday 18 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Galway didn't just win the All-Ireland, they did their sport a huge service'


Galway’s Niamh Kilkenny produced an incredible individual performance. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Galway’s Niamh Kilkenny produced an incredible individual performance. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

What just happened to the camogie All-Ireland final? In recent years the showpiece had too often been a dour affair where outnumbered forwards strove fruitlessly to break down packed defences. After the colossally boring deciders of 2017 and 2018, when even close finishes could not mask the tedious proceedings, it seemed camogie had an image problem.

Was there something defective in the game itself? Did the rules need to be changed? Was the refereeing far too fussy? What the hell was wrong with camogie?

Maybe it just needed a change of attitude. Because yesterday Galway and Kilkenny produced a match so quickfire, carefree and exciting it restored your faith in the game. By half-time the combined score had exceeded that of the 2017 final and come within one point of last year's.

The previous four finals had produced just three goals. Galway hit that many in the first 27 minutes.

By the end they'd compiled the highest winning score since Tipperary's 4-13 against Kilkenny in 2001. The combined total was the highest since 1988 which was also the last time a losing team scored as much as Kilkenny did yesterday. It's a long time since there was a camogie final like this one.

One of the stars of the 1988 scorefest was current Kilkenny manager Ann Downey whose team beat Cork that day. After taking stick for her negative approach in last year's final, Downey radically changed her philosophy with Kilkenny running up big scores on their way to the decider. Their transformation from 1960s Inter Milan to noughties Barcelona contributed to this classic final but the tone was largely set by Galway, and two extraordinary individual performances in particular.

The game was just 80 seconds old when midfielder Niamh Kilkenny powered through the centre before passing to corner-forward Ailish O'Reilly who fired a fierce shot to the net. Four minutes into injury-time they combined for the game's final point, O'Reilly providing the pass and Kilkenny the finish.

In between, they'd formed the deadliest double act since Thelma and Louise. O'Reilly created Galway's second goal and scored the third, spreading panic through the Kilkenny defence and excitement through the crowd every time she gained possession. Niamh Kilkenny produced one of the finest individual performances seen in any sport on Irish soil this year. Her point midway through the second half, when she plucked a delivery from 'keeper Sarah Healy out of the sky and struck a long shot over the bar, wasn't just the score of the game, it was Galway's first in 12 minutes as for the first time they seemed to be struggling. Cometh the hour cometh the woman.

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Another inspirational score four minutes from the end pushed Galway four clear before Kilkenny rounded off her tour de force with that concluding point. The Pearses player appeared in her first final in 2008 while O'Reilly scored the only goal of the game when Galway won their last final six years ago. But their most significant collaborator is still in her teens. Goalkeeper Healy brings a new dimension to the game with her long puck-outs. Galway fans might have been reminded of the way Ger Cunningham bombarded their full-back line in the 1990 All-Ireland hurling final.

Kilkenny are the first team to lose three finals in a row since the Cork team denied by Downey as a player from 1987 to 1989. Kilkenny's previous two losses were by a point rather than six yet the manner of this defeat did them more credit.

This time they went for it. And when they cut the lead from seven points to two entering the last ten minutes things seemed to have turned their way especially when Galway's Carrie Dolan missed a simple free. Yet when Dolan was presented with a much more difficult free out on the right four minutes later, she landed it.

Her recovery epitomised Galway's irresistible self-belief. Unfancied not just in the final but before dethroning Cork in the semi they must have been rocked when star defender Tara Kenny suffered a knee injury last Thursday. Yet their enormous verve and energy carried them past all obstacles.

Galway didn't just win the All-Ireland, they did their game a huge service by the way they won it. Ladies football, with its huge crowds and higher profile players, is the flavour du jour which has overshadowed the older game.

What yesterday's final proved is that there is nothing wrong with camogie if it's played properly.

What just happened to the All-Ireland camogie final? The spirit of adventure happened to it. Ailish and Niamh happened to it. Galway happened to it.

Irish Independent

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