Sport Hurling

Sunday 25 February 2018

Supermum aims to turn underdogs into top Cats

SO CAMOGIE is for wimps, right? Wrong. Two and a half months ago Jillian Dillon-Maher gave birth to her third child.

When Darragh was only seven weeks old, his mum stepped off the bench in Cusack Park, Mullingar, hurley in hand, to help Kilkenny dispatch Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final.

She played for 20 minutes that day and, despite being named amongst the subs, is expected to play an even greater role in tomorrow's All-Ireland final against Tipperary in Croke Park.

With three senior medals to her name and raw courage an ancillary badge, the former captain and centre-back will have a vital role to play for a Kilkenny side who go into the game as underdogs.

See, Kilkenny's fortunes have changed radically these past years.

Once they were Queens of camogie, winning a relentless nine All-Ireland senior titles between 1981 and their last in 1994.

But earlier this year, they only narrowly escaped relegation in the league and, like their hurlers back in 1997, are mighty grateful to take advantage of the camogie championship's inaugural 'back-door'.

On July 6, Kilkenny played the reigning All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the opening round and later confessed they were actually relieved to lose by just seven points.

That's because the 2-9 to 0-8 scoreline was such a massive improvement on the bludgeoning they had suffered from the Premier women in the league when, admittedly, Kilkenny were very understrength.

Now, thanks to camogie's new second-chance saloon and the return of several key players, Kilkenny have qualified to play Tipperary again in a Foras na Gaeilge All-Ireland senior championship final which resonates with historical significance.

This time it is Tipp who look imperious.

They burst onto the national radar by pipping Kilkenny in the '99 final and proved it was no fluke by beating Cork so convincingly last year.

It is Tipp who now have all the recognisable, marquee players.

There's the classy resolution of full-back Una O'Dwyer, the ariel audacity of centre-back Ciara Gaynor (Len's daughter), the speedy skill of centre-forward Noelle Kennedy and a quite awesome full-forward line of Eimer McDonnell, Deirdre Hughes and Claire Grogan, who scored two points and made a huge contribution this time last year when she was just 14!

Yes, Tipp have since lost a vital cog in midfielder Angela McDermott and another in Caitriona Hennessy, their regular free-taker and the woman who broke Kilkenny's hearts with two match-winning late frees in '99.

And it did take them two games and some late, late goals to put Cork away in their semi-final, when Cork were noticeably without Lynn Dunlea for the replay.

Still, compared to Michael Cleary's high-flying side, Kilkenny is a county with the builders still in.

Only one of the Downey triumverate remains. Edel Maher and Aoife Neary are just 16 and goalkeeper Catriona Ryan only made her championship debut this summer.

Although they can still call on seven players who lined out in the 1999 final including Brigid Mullaly, Sinead Costelloe and Lizzie Lyng most of the survivors are in defence.

It is doubtful they'd be here at all without the return from her world travels in June of the brilliant Sinead Millea.

She scored 0-7 of their 0-8 total in their last meeting with Tipperary, and then contributed 0-10 when Kilkenny beat Galway by 2-12 to 1-9 in the semi-final, Martina Maher bagging both goals.

Now managed by Brendan Williams and Ted Browne (Angela Downey's husband), Kilkenny are gambling on the fitness of late injury-worries Kelly Long and Marina Downey and they won't want for motivation.

Memories of 1999, when they should have put Tipp away, will surely spur them on, but it's impossible not to fancy the champions.

They are more experienced; they beat last year's finalists over two games to get here; and, exactly a week after their men's success, with their own three-in-a-row at stake (and a possible senior-junior double as a bonus) and the whole of Tipp gone hurling crazy, it would be utter madness to bet against them.

* Live television coverage of the All-Ireland camogie final is on RTE One (3.30) on Sunday, with highlights on Network 2 at 9.0.

TIPPERARY J Delaney; P Bulfin, U O'Dwyer, C Madden; S Nealon, C Gaynor, T Brophy; S Kelly, P Fogarty; E Hayden, N Kennedy, J Ryan; E McDonnell, D Hughes, C Grogan.

KILKENNY C Ryan; Marie Maher, S Costelloe, M Costelloe; E Kennedy, K Long, E Maher; B Mullaly, L Lyng; S Millea, Martina Maher, I Kennedy; C Doherty, A Neary, M Downey.

REF A Derham (Dublin)

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