By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final
Galway v Kilkenny
Referee: Ray Kelly (Kildare)
For the first time since 2015, the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final will not be contested by the fierce rivals Cork and Kilkenny, with Galway breaking through to contest the decider for the first time since losing to the Rebels four years ago.
It is a repeat of the 2013 decider, when the Tribeswomen won the most recent of their two All-Ireland titles. Tony Ward was manager of Galway in both those Finals, and when the Maroons made their historic breakthrough in 1996, so current boss Cathal Murray will be looking to enter select company.
The improvement in Galway has been obvious since the Sarsfields man took over the reins after last year’s National League, especially once he got a full pre-season into the players. They are significantly more durable physically and nowhere was this more evident than in their Semi-Final defeat of Cork, who were in pursuit of a third consecutive Championship.
They dealt with setbacks too in that game, which was also the case in the National League decider, when they got the better of Kilkenny by a two-point margin that ultimately flattered the Noresiders, despite their gritty second-half rally.
As well as physical and mental strength, Galway are significantly beefed up in terms of the appliance of science and tactical awareness.
They are bulwarked by a strong core that has known the best days and the worst, with peerless full-back and captain Sarah Dervan the rock of a very impressive full-back line in which Shauna Healy has also been an obdurate presence. Niamh Kilkenny, Aoife Donohue, Ailish O’Reilly and 2013 skipper Lorraine Ryan remain key operators too.
There is fresher blood too however, with teenager Sarah Healy establishing herself among the premier goalkeepers in the game having succeeded Susan Earner three season ago. In particular, the 19-year-old made some stunning saves when Waterford had her side rocking in the Quarter-Final, and one crucial stop in the second-half in the penultimate round as Cork chased a goal.
Former footballer Caitríona Cormican has proven a key addition to the squad and her two points within a minute against the Rebels were critical in keeping Paudie Murray’s crew at bay. Emma Helebert has been a revelation at centre-back and Carrie Dolan has belied her youthfulness with the composure she has shown over placed balls.
Kilkenny know all about All-Ireland Final day, with this their fourth consecutive appearance in Camogie’s blue riband and sixth in seven seasons. They have triumphed in only one of those, in 2016, but only fell short by the minimum margin in the two subsequent deciders.
There was a reshuffle in the management team this season but Ann Downey remains at the top and in the centre, the beating heart and guiding hand, as she was when gathering 12 Senior Championship medals herself.
There has been a very definite change in approach in the meantime, with new coach, the two-time All-Ireland-winning hurler, Brian Dowling facilitating the desire to implement a more attacking style than had been seen in recent years.
With a view to matching Cork especially, but Galway too, Kilkenny had moved former Player of the Year and three-time All-Star Anne Dalton to a centre-back/sweeper role. It is hard to say that it didn’t work, as they won an All-Ireland and Dalton doubled her All-Stars tally, while also then being named Player of the Year for a second time at the end of last season. Yet there was a gnawing sense that while opposition attacks were being neutralised, their own talented forwards were suffering. They managed just 13 points in last year’s Final and just nine the year before.
Putting a 43-point beating on Wexford in the group stages clearly skews their scoring stats but that Dalton was leading scorer going into the All-Ireland Semi-Final defeat of Tipperary, where she scored 1-1 and showed so many delightful exhibitions of her gifts, is certainly notable.
The St. Lachtain’s star is now operating largely around centre-forward, from where she has plundered a stunning 6-11 from play. Even if she were to drift back to the middle to help the likes of joint skippers and sisters, Meighan and Anna Farrell, Kellyann Doyle and Denise Gaule deny Donohue and Niamh Kilkenny the space they thrive in, it will still mean that she is a threat in a creative sense. 2016 skipper, Michelle Quilty hit Tipp for 1-9 and is now the team’s top scorer, just ahead of Gaule and Dalton, while Miriam Walsh and Katie Power work like Trojans.
Defensively, Claire Phelan has stepped into the Dalton position and made it her own, while Grace Walsh and Davina Tobin are elite markers, who are also relishing having more targets to hit with their clearances.
The potential match-ups are mouth-watering, whatever way Downey and Murray decide to go, but it is difficult to envisage anything other than this going down to the wire. Galway got on top by two points in the League Final, though it was 16 scores to 10, but Kilkenny had the same margin in hand in their Championship round-robin clash. There is nothing between them and it wouldn’t be a surprise if a replay is required to unearth a victor.