Tuesday 15 October 2019

Riveting rivalry too close to call

Cork’s Gemma O’Connor in action against Kilkenny duo Denise Gaule and Katie Power during last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork’s Gemma O’Connor in action against Kilkenny duo Denise Gaule and Katie Power during last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The All-Ireland camogie final has been overshadowed by its football counterpart in recent years. The emergence of a charismatic Cork team, their thrilling rivalry with Dublin and the soaring attendances, last year's massive 46,286 in particular, have seen ladies' football enjoy a much higher profile than camogie.

Camogie wasn't always the poor relation. In 2007 a whopping 33,154 turned out to see Wexford defeat Cork. Not until 2016 would football surpass this attendance. Back in the 1980s Angela Downey was a household name in a way that no-one on the record-breaking Kerry ladies' football side of the time was.

And in the last couple of years camogie has seen the development of one of the most intriguing rivalries in Irish sport. It began in earnest two years ago when a Kilkenny side given little chance of preventing a Cork three in-a-row shocked everyone with a seven-point victory that gave the county a first title in 22 years.

For most of last year's decider it looked as though Kilkenny were about to confirm their status as the new queens of camogie. But, in perhaps the most remarkable finish of the year, two magnificent injury-time points from Gemma O'Connor and Julia White saw Cork through by 0-10 to 0-9.

Today it's round three. There is no denying that this pairing has caught the public imagination, last year's final attendance was the biggest since 2009. Cork's victory that day seemed to show that, like their football comrades, this team could carve out a victory if there was any opportunity at all of doing so. There's something uncanny about the ability this generation of Cork players have displayed in tight finishes.

A defeat like last year's can crush a team. Yet Kilkenny bounced back to win a League final when they had a point to spare over their Cork rivals. They've won all five matches on their way to this final, enjoying an average winning margin of over 10 points. The Rebels have been more ruthless still, they've gone six for six and their winning average is almost 18 points.

These aren't just the two best teams in camogie right now, they're probably the best two there's been in some time. With the score in All-Ireland finals at 1-1 it feels like there's something pivotal about today's game. The winners could go on to dominate for the next couple of years. It's one of those contests which, as the identical bookies' odds for both teams shows, really is too close to call.

They're two very different sides. Cork are going for a fourth title in five years and have survivors from the team which played in eight successive finals in the noughties. Gemma O'Connor, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, is going for a ninth All-Ireland medal. So is Aoife Murray, while Orla Cotter and the indomitable Briege Corkery, who came off the bench in the semi-final, are looking for a seventh.

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Kilkenny, on the other hand, spent over two decades languishing behind the likes of Cork, Tipperary and Wexford. Hence the extraordinary hunger they displayed two years ago after losing both the 2013 and 2014 finals. The likes of Katie Power, Denise Gaule, Michelle Quilty and the magnificent Anne Dalton are entitled to feel somewhat under-rewarded by comparison to today's opposition.

Cork's unparalleled competitive spirit might seem to give them the edge. But then there is the sense that Kilkenny could be the coming team. Under normal circumstances you'd imagine they'd also have the edge in terms of hunger were it not for the fact that this Cork team is full of players who never seem to tire of winning. Camogie's golden era may well have been the years from 2004 to 2009 which saw the four biggest final attendances in competition history. The last two deciders between Cork and Kilkenny ranked as number five and six after a number of disappointing years. This is a rivalry to really revive the country's most under-rated game.

Only four times in the camogie final's 86-year history has there been a draw. There hasn't been one since Cork and Limerick drew in 1980. In the year of the hurling draw, might another one be on the cards today between these two perfectly matched teams?

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