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Sunday 24 June 2018

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Kilkenny equipped to retain their title after intense battle

Cork manager Paudie Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork manager Paudie Murray. Photo: Sportsfile

Aislinn Connolly

All-Ireland finals are addictive, once you get to play in one you keep wanting more. Cork and Kilkenny will arrive into Croke Park this afternoon with one thing on their minds and that's glory.

They won't be fazed by the big day and all that goes with it. The Garda escort, Croke Park in all its beauty, the fanfare and the crowds are all part of the routine now. It will be impossible to distract them from the task at hand.

Having that focus comes with experience and both sides can now stand up and say, 'I've been there and done that'. They have both tasted success, the days of dreaming about it now belong to others.

Kilkenny are the defending champions. They whetted their appetites last year with their historic win and today will be hungry for more.

Last September they knocked Cork off their perch in the final and stopped them winning three in a row, so Paudie Murray's team will be on a mission to reclaim the All-Ireland crown.

Kilkenny learned a lot from last year, that much is obvious from the way they have been conducting themselves on the pitch this season. Winning that elusive All-Ireland took the edge off and it instilled a lot of belief in that group of players.

Because of that they will be very confident going into the game, knowing they are there on merit and knowing they have what it takes to win.

Ann Downey is a big believer in hard work and there is no shortage of that in this Kilkenny side.

On the other hand Cork will be determined and ruthless, they want to be kingpins again and they set their stall out early in the season. But they have been dealt a massive blow with the loss of Gemma O'Connor.

She is such an influential player for them and centre-back is such an important role. She is solid, leads by example and she can change the flow of the game. Ashling Thompson looks set to fill her role but moving her back means they have a hole to fill elsewhere.

In the position where Cork will be left vulnerable, Kilkenny will be at their strongest with Anne Dalton holding court. She has been their go-to player all season. She lines out at as a traditional number six but has been playing sweeper all year and has been executing it like she was born to do it.

Against Dublin, she was super, nothing could get past her. She has a brilliant camogie brain so she can read the play; she has great vision too and rarely gives a poor pass.

Kilkenny are the only team in the country playing a sweeper system and this is testament to how innovative Ann Downey is. We know from watching so many hurling teams try it that it is not easy to get it right. It takes a lot of coaching and practice and it is not something you can turn on for one game.

Cork will have to adapt to playing against the sweeper which isn't easy when you aren't doing it regularly. I'm sure they have done plenty of analysis on it. They will have looked at Dalton and how she plays in the role but the issue they will have is that with every passing game she gets better at it. Cork will have to nullify her and cut out her brilliant distribution of ball to the Kilkenny forwards if they are to win today.

Another key area will be the forward units of both teams. Cork will have been horrified to go 28 minutes without a score in the second half in the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. Between then and now they will have been working extremely hard on their point-taking especially.

Kilkenny have pacey forwards, the likes of Shelley Farrell, Katie Power and last year's player of the match Julianne Malone, who are all lively and will be hard to keep tabs on in the wide open spaces in Croke Park. Denise Gaule, their sharpshooter from placed balls, is strong in the air and a key player Cork need to watch.

I'm sure there was a lot of relief felt in that forward pack when the news broke that O'Connor would be out. She marshals the half-back line and like Dalton has great vision and presence of mind.

Undoubtedly an intriguing contest awaits, they are two evenly-matched teams who will play contrasting styles. It will be interesting to see which team manages to successfully implement their tactics. Both managers will have something up their sleeves so the battle on the line will also be fascinating.

From the outside looking in it seems there is a rivalry there between the two teams. An intense rivalry indeed, especially since Kilkenny prevented Cork from three-in-a-row glory last year and have already beaten Cork in the league final this year. Last year's handshake controversy also fuelled this rivalry.

Overall, I think Kilkenny have been the stronger side this season. Their backs have been performing well, their forwards are lively and their bench has got more depth to it than Cork's.

Kilkenny were fighting for so long to get over the line and that win last year will have delivered more than just a trophy, it will have brought a new mentality and belief too. GAA fans everywhere know how hard it is to stop the Cats when they are on a roll and I can't see today offering anything to prove that wrong.

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