Tuesday 22 May 2018

This is a serious contest with a serious edge and a lot at stake

Fiona Leavy, Westmeath, (Junior), Claire Coffey, Meath (Intermediate), Rena Buckley, Cork (Senior), Anna Farrell, Kilkenny (Senior), Niamh Ni Chaoimh, Cork (Intermediate) and Emer Keenan, Dublin (Junior)
Fiona Leavy, Westmeath, (Junior), Claire Coffey, Meath (Intermediate), Rena Buckley, Cork (Senior), Anna Farrell, Kilkenny (Senior), Niamh Ni Chaoimh, Cork (Intermediate) and Emer Keenan, Dublin (Junior)

Dermot Crowe

You'll have gathered by now, from various player autobiographies and the evidence of your own eyes, that the hurlers of Cork and Kilkenny didn't have much time for each other. Whether this has any bearing on camogie rivalry between the same counties is debatable, but the meeting of Kilkenny and Cork in the senior final in Croke Park this afternoon has a ripple of tension and the potential for some fireworks.

A little rivalry is essential and grist to the publicity mill, all the more important to a camogie movement keen to spread the word and widen its appeal. Last year Kilkenny went to Croke Park, under the management of Ann Downey, and won their first senior camogie championship in 22 years. In doing so they stripped Cork of their title and shifted the centre of power. Relations looked testy enough. In the handshake ritual before the match Cork's Hannah Looney gave a little dunt into Collette Dormer and got a push back for her troubles, but Kilkenny set the standard and won the day.

Camogie profited too. While Looney would later complain, legitimately, that many of the social media responders had no interest in camogie, she might have underestimated its promotional value. Many indeed may have had little or no interest prior to this but they may well have taken a bit more interest after. They might be more inclined to see how this rematch goes on the back of something as peripheral and overblown as a lapse in the pre-match etiquette.

At any rate, this was the All-Ireland senior camogie final, with a lot at stake, and not the Rose of Tralee. These are the slightly subversive off-script moments that people remember. It was too late to have a bearing on the day's attendance which was the fifth highest for an All-Ireland final since 1932, marginally exceeding 20,000. The finals also attracted an increased television audience, with 328,000 tuned in at its peak during the senior final, which was broadcast live on RTé. This represented an increase on the previous high of 305,000 who watched the 2015 finals. The figures are healthy, on the up.

Camogie has been criticised for being slow to latch on to greater television exposure but it is now fully embracing the medium and looks to be already enjoying the benefits. Ladies' football stole a march on it when using television to broaden its reach and audience, arranging a beneficial deal with TG4. In 2014, camogie had just two games televised by RTé. The attendance at the camogie final the same year was just 12,000.

Last year's All-Ireland premier junior final was streamed live for the first time. And this year has seen further advances with all the knockout matches being televised live. Last year they televised the semi-finals for the first time and this season they widened that to include the quarter-finals. All of this helps to assimilate the game more into people's lives.

The product has always been good but it has not always been sufficiently well exposed. This is why - though not the intention - that something like a controversial handshaking incident can become a promotional gift. There is no reason to believe that the feelings underlying it were not genuine.

Cork and Kilkenny rivalry is intense and Kilkenny, having denied Cork a three-in-a-row last year, are now holding the big stick. They also denied Cork a place in the record books last year as the most successful county in the senior championship. Cork currently share the most titles won with Dublin on 26.

The apparent revival of Dublin is also good for camogie and the potential spread of audience interest. For a county with such a proud record historically, Dublin have fallen from grace but show signs of definitive recovery. Kilkenny had a trying time against them in the recent semi-finals before coming through by a flattering eight points, the second goal arriving deep in injury time. Dublin were appearing in their first semi-final in 27 years. They were bidding for their first final appearance in 31 years. They look to be on the way back.

Kilkenny had some difficulties in the group stages, needing a point from Player of the Year Denise Gaule to gain a draw against Clare in Nowlan Park in early July. Cork defeated them in the league in April at a stage when both counties had qualified for the semi-finals of the competition. But when it really mattered, Kilkenny delivered, winning the league final against Cork which leaves them poised for a second league-championship double in succession today. Cork reached their fourth consecutive All-Ireland final with a win over Galway, withstanding late pressure after they saw an eight-point lead slip.

They are outsiders in what is expected to be a low-scoring game, with Kilkenny and Cork both playing their centre-backs deep and placing greater numbers in their own half of the field. Cork's prospects have been severely undermined with injury to nine-time All-Star Gemma O'Connor, who went off in the second half of the Galway game. She is a serious loss to the team, and it is likely that Ashling Thompson will be redeployed to her position.

Kilkenny have more depth on the bench, as evidenced by the absence of several of their All-Ireland final team of last year when they beat Cork in this year's league final. They are favourites to win again. Cork are in action on the double, their intermediates facing Meath, with the day's play getting under way when Dublin and Westmeath meet in the premier junior final. The key handshake moment will still be the one which sees the winning captain accept the congratulations of Camogie Association president Catherine Neary at the end of the senior final, before being awarded the O'Duffy Cup. That will be the least hostile handshake of all but also the most desired and most relevant.

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