The return of three legendary figures, who had taken a year out to have babies, has propelled Clonduff all the way to Croke Park and a shot at a second AIB Camogie All-Ireland intermediate title, writes Daragh Ó Conchúir.
Paula O’Hagan was captain and player of the match when the Down side eked out a one-point victory at HQ in March 2019, while sisters Fionnuala Carr and Sara-Louise Graffin were major contributors also.
The trio have enjoyed the ultimate success in the black and red of the Mourne County too, so one can only imagine the fillip to their clubmates when the trio returned to the fray this season, buggies in tow along with a considerable compilation of ability and leadership.
Throw others such as skipper Jenna Boden, Clare Kearney, an All-Ireland premier junior championship winner with Antrim this year, and goal sneak Beth Fitzpatrick into the mix and it’s easy to see why Clonduff are so close to the summit once more.
A green flag from Fitzpatrick just before the interval was a critical score in the provincial decider against Eglish, at Páirc Esler, as it brought the teams level going into the dressing rooms. Boosted by that rapier thrust, Clonduff chiselled out the victory from there.
They displayed mammoth character to emerge from a rip-roaring All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry’s courageous Clanmaurice last Saturday, needing two last-ditch levellers before emerging successful at the end of two periods of extra time by a five-point margin that was a mite flattering.
They trailed by four points at the break but O’Hagan and Graffin exerted a greater influence after the resumption, eventually scoring 13 points between them, while Carr also thundered into the fray and Clanmaurice were held to two second-half scores. Graffin shot the first equaliser, while O’Hagan held her nerve from a placed ball to drill the second one.
Clonduff had just that bit more legs perhaps in the final period of extra time and had nosed two points ahead when Fitzpatrick removed all doubt with a goal in the game’s final act.
James Stephens have embarked on a tremendous journey in recent years, soaring to this stage just little more than two years after making the breakthrough at junior level in Kilkenny.
They signalled their progress by going through league and championship unbeaten this term, overcoming the stern resistance of Rower-Inistioge in the championship decider. Next up were Raharney (Westmeath) and St Brigid’s (Laois) before Carlow champions Myshall were accounted for by five points in a Leinster final that amounted to a riveting battle of wills.
Management will love how their troops continue to navigate choppy waters and Castlegar (Galway) offered up another stern examination of their credentials at the penultimate hurdle before being beaten by five points.
Kilkenny’s goal-scoring All-Ireland final heroine, Sophie O’Dwyer is a key figure, with her accuracy from placed balls another string to her bow. Michelle Teehan and Niamh Deely are other stars of the black and amber who have helped propel The Village to this juncture, as they attempt to become the second Noreside club to win at this grade.
It is worth noting that while Teehan has established herself in the Kilkenny team as a corner-back, her more natural role is more advanced and it was her goal after a brilliant length-of-the-field move that ended Castlegar’s resistance.
Emma Manogue and Emma Gaffney are others who James Stephens followers will be looking to if they are to deliver more silverware but the likelihood is that there is very little between these two well-balanced units and that this is one that will go all the way down to the wire.
Catch Clonduff v James Stephens live on KCLR on Saturday afternoon with thanks to Kissane’s Pharmacy Group with coverage beginning on air and online at 4pm.