Thursday 19 September 2019

New keeper of defensive keys will be vital for Downey's charges

Centre-back Phelan just as important as flair forwards

Claire Phelan has been at the heart of Kilkenny’s defensive solidity since switching to centre-back. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Claire Phelan has been at the heart of Kilkenny’s defensive solidity since switching to centre-back. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Cliona Foley

SO much is talked about Kilkenny's vaunted attack that it's easy to forget about their defence, which will be equally vital if they're to avoid losing a third All-Ireland senior final in a row tomorrow.

Claire Phelan may not have the same fame or flamboyance as her forward colleagues but this year she's become equally totemic.

The decision to take Anne Dalton out of centre-back to lead a more attacking style left a gaping hole at No 6 and Phelan has filled it seamlessly.

Yet she has little profile, a 25-year-old primary school teacher who quietly goes about her business with only a purist's acclaim.

"I had big shoes to fill after Anne, I was always on the wing at half-back before and centre-back is a bigger role, you're trying to control the game a bit more," she says.

"But Anne herself was brilliant to show me things and I was lucky to have played centre-back in the club for a long time, so I had some idea of the role Ann (Downey) was giving me."

Phelan grew up idolising the Kilkenny manager and not just because of her legendary skill and achievements.

They're from the same Lisdowney club which meant that Downey spotted her early.

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She called her into the Kilkenny seniors when Phelan was only 17 and still in fifth year in school.

She's been there eight seasons now and played in the last Kilkenny-Galway decider in 2013 when the Tribeswomen pulled off the double that they're hoping to emulate tomorrow.

Remember

"I started (in midfield) but was taken off. I was very young, Galway won and I don't remember anything really."

Now she's indispensable to their defence and "a fabulous centre-back, has some hand on her," says Downey. "She was injured for the 2017 All-Ireland and a big loss for us."

Phelan tore her hamstring before the semi-finals two years ago and spent that day "up and down the line", a particularly frustrating experience given the way Julia White's late wonder point pulled the game out of the bag for Cork.

But Phelan was right in the thick of things in last year's equally frenetic finish and didn't shirk the responsibility, taking their final, last-gasp shot to try to nick a late equaliser.

"Yeah, I had a chance. We got a free, Anne took it quickly to me and I drove it to the right of the post. I won't forget that one too quickly but look, it was the best option at the time," she says stoically.

"If it went over it would have been the best thing in the world but that's just the way it goes and we had to give credit to Cork.

"When you're younger you dream of scoring those points, but things don't always go your way and sometimes you have a bitter pill to swallow."

Being forced to ingest one at the climax of consecutive seasons surely stuck even harder in the craw?

"Look, for a few weeks afterwards camogie is the last thing you want to think about but, by the time December and January rolls around, all you want to do is get back to Croke Park in September. You just have to take the lows with the highs."

Like her team-mates, she says the contribution of new coach and trainer Brian Dowling and Ray Challoner this season has added a freshness to her side's' training and playing style.

"There's a bit of new energy and enjoyment about us, a freedom I suppose. If you don't enjoy it you won't play as well and the boys are calm also, they don't get too wound up."

Directly behind her is another unheralded hero, full-back Catherine Foley.

Foley (24) is a microbiologist, spending her working day gowned up in a sterile lab for hours on end, testing pharmaceutical products at Eurofins in Dungarvan.

A specialist work placement in Dublin meant she missed the whole of 2016, which coincided with Kilkenny's only victory in their five finals since 2013.

She too has more reasons than most to want to end Kilkenny's recent losing streak and herself and Phelan will be under the microscope tomorrow. And Foley says Kilkenny's new No 6 is well suited to the job.

"Claire is just so easy to work with, she just cleans up everything. She makes you relaxed because she's so relaxed while sweeping up every ball."

The only girl in a family of four, Phelan's home was always a hurling household and enlivened by some fun sporting conflicts.

Her dad is a Laois man who played for Durrow Harps while mum is from Birdhill and still a devout Premier hurling fan who provides many Tipp relatives eager to trade banter every summer.

Like many, Phelan senses tomorrow's senior final will be more open than the last two goal-less deciders.

Such was their familiarity with Cork, the 2018 throw-in was delayed by the bizarre sight of all the Rebel forwards bunching in the Kilkenny square in an attempt to confuse their markers.

"We didn't know what was going on! I think the ref was confused too but no one wanted to give in," she chuckles.

"Galway have really skilful hurlers and are a lot like ourselves in the way they play so I think, for spectators, that'll bring something different this time and it will be a much more open game."

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