The All-Ireland camogie final was a battle and a half. It was a battle of philosophies, a battle of styles, a battle between old school and new departure, between Brian Dowling and Davy Fitzgerald, perhaps even between camogie and hurling.
Kilkenny’s victory was founded on traditional last-ditch sang-froid, on newly imbued grit and on a magnificent performance by Miriam Walsh.
It came despite a Cork display whose pace, power and physicality set new standards for a camogie decider. Davy Fitzgerald’s stamp was all over a performance which may prove influential in the long term.
Never before has camogie seemed so close to hurling. Never has a team shrugged off or simply barrelled through so many challenges. Again and again Cork powered down the middle at speed, threatening to run the legs off Kilkenny and sweep them away. Yet the Cats hung in there. The six-point lead they’d amassed by the 20th minute proved a crucial insurance policy.
Cork didn’t open their account until that 20th minute, mirroring the semi-final when it took 22 minutes for their first score to arrive. The similarity argues against mere coincidence.
Rebelette sluggishness may instead have derived from the difficulty of executing an almost obsessive short passing and ball-carrying style right from the off. The technical demands are high for a team settling into a game against fresh opposition.
As Cork struggled to find their rhythm, Kilkenny, playing a less ambitious but more measured and precise game which focused on letting the ball do the work, hit their stride immediately with a string of fine points.
Yet once Fiona Keating had got the sliotar rolling, finishing one of those powerful forays down the middle with a superb solo goal, the benefits of Cork’s approach became obvious. Playing expertly through the lines, they were level by the break. The tide seemed to have turned in their favour.
Forced on the back foot for much of the second half, Kilkenny sometimes resembled a boat rocked by a storm at sea. Yet though they struggled they did not sink. Two points down with three minutes left, they conjured up one of those opportunist Croke Park heartbreakers which seem part of the county’s birthright.
Once she’d been presented with the opportunity, Sophie Dwyer’s sweep of the hurl was as emphatic and ruthless as any of its historical predecessors.
Though Cork equalised through Katrina Mackey, after another high-speed surge through the heart of the Kilkenny rearguard, the Cats had the last laugh thanks to Denise Gaule’s free.
That free was created by Walsh, heading goalwards with such determination the rugby tackle which brought her down seemed the wisest option. The crucial run crowned an immense showing from the full-forward.
When Kilkenny were on top her two angled points struck under huge pressure were the finest scores of the first half. And when the heat was on she continued to shine, opening the second half scoring with a super shot over her shoulder before winning a pointed free with a beautiful pick-up and turn.
Like her cousins Tommy, Pádraig and Grace before her, Miriam showed that the addition of a Tullaroan Walsh to an All-Ireland final can produce a spectacular chemical reaction.
It’s tempting to regard a single-point Kilkenny All-Ireland final win as belonging to the natural order of things. They’ve been doing this to Cork since Jer Doheny led an all-Tullaroan team to victory at Fraher Field in the 1904 hurling decider. Yet the last two final meetings between the sides ended with one-point wins for Cork. Those defeats ushered Brian Dowling into the job and this victory illustrated the change wrought by the O’Loughlin Gaels man during his three-year term.
From losing finals they looked like winning, Kilkenny have become expert at winning games they look like losing. Their extraordinary steadfastness under Dowling helped them not just to survive Cork’s onslaught yesterday but to overcome the loss of five key players this season to retirement, injuries and emigration.
If Cork players powering past or through challenges were abiding images of this encounter, so were Kilkenny players hunting in packs, swarming the woman in possession or getting in a vital interception at the last second. Few teams have looked hungrier on All-Ireland final day, perhaps because the Cats 2020 victory took place in the eerie atmosphere of a Croker closed to crowds by Covid. This one felt like the real thing.
Last year Walsh reacted to news that only 11pc of the Irish sporting public could name even one camogie player by suggesting players wear their names on their jerseys.
Something needs to be done. Because anyone ignorant of the name and deeds of Miriam Walsh, Denise Gaule, Tiffany Fitzgerald, Katrina Mackey, Fiona Keating and Saoirse McCarthy, to name just a few who made colossal contributions to this epic, has a gravely deficient picture of Irish sport.
This final felt like an important step in camogie’s evolution yet in terms of mass appeal the game still lags behind ladies football which attracted roughly twice as many fans to its decider last week. A lack of novelty may be partly responsible.
Ten finals in a row have featured some combination of Cork, Kilkenny and Galway. A big step forward for Waterford and Tipperary next year would also be a big step forward for camogie.
Yet this seems a churlish consideration after the entertainment the old firm provided yesterday. A blistering second-half spell yielding nine points in 13 minutes matched anything seen at headquarters this year in terms of quality. This finale had few peers for visceral excitement.
There could have been no more dramatic way to bring down the curtain on the inter-county season.
It’s just a pity the two sides couldn’t have won. They both deserved to.