The Waterford IT Arena will play host to the 105th UPMC Ashbourne Cup this weekend and it is shaping up to be a riveting festival of top-notch camogie.
Here are just some of the big names that will be taking part:
BETH CARTON (UL, DE LA SALLE & WATERFORD)
An underage prodigy who was a key cog during Waterford’s ascension to senior status while still in secondary school, Carton has continued her development and established herself as one of the nation’s premier forwards.
The De La Salle sharpshooter is an ace free-taker but deadly from play as well and requires complete attention from opposition defenders. Her tally of 5-36 for the Déise in the 2019 Championship illustrates her threat. Carton’s strength and touch are such that she is extremely effective when coming deep to win possession too.
An All-Star the last two years for her performances for Waterford, the 21-year-old became the first back-to-back winner of the WLR/Granville Hotel Waterford GAA Player of the Year (open to both genders) last December.
Carton has unsurprisingly made her presence felt in third-level competition, winning Ashbourne Cups in each of her three years in college prior to this – she was player of the match last year - and she captains UL in their five-in-a-row bid.
ORLA CRONIN (UCC, ENNISKEANE & CORK)
Although somehow managing to keep a low profile, Cronin already possesses four All-Ireland senior medals from eight seasons of involvement, three of those on the pitch while operating in the key position of centre-forward. The Enniskeane attacker was player of the match in the 2017 All-Ireland Final, scoring three points from play – a mammoth contribution in the context of a 0-10 to 0-9 scoreline.
Possessing an exquisite touch, Cronin owns a keen instinct that can make it appear that she has the sliotar on a string at times, such is the regularity with which she swoops on breaking ball and quickly gathers. She is also very accurate from placed balls.
The Ashbourne Cup has not been so kind to the 24-year-old. She has lost three finals to UL including as captain in 2018. After an absence of a year, she is back on campus and desperate to help the Skull and Crossbones bridge a 17-year gap from the most recent of their 32 triumphs.
KELLY ANN DOYLE (DCU, PILTOWN & KILKENNY)
Kelly Ann Doyle earned a regular spot on the Kilkenny team that reached last year’s All-Ireland final but it was only serious injury that delayed her impact until then, having fallen foul of the dreaded cruciate knee ligament injury.
The 22-year-old speedster is a former underage national hurdling champion who has focused on camogie in recent years but her athleticism makes her a vital cog in the wheel of a DCU unit looking to make history and annex a first Ashbourne Cup victory.
Doyle was still only 17 when player of the match as Piltown were crowned All-Ireland Intermediate Club champions in 2015, cutting out attack after attack before utilising that elite speed to get her team going on the counter. She has enjoyed the ultimate success at minor level with Kilkenny too. Her performances at senior level earned her an All-Star nomination in 2019 and opponents will be desperate to stop her getting the turbo boost going over the weekend.
SARAH HEALY (GMIT, ST. THOMAS’ & GALWAY)
Another All-Star, the teenage goalkeeper’s selection was a certainty given her critical role in Galway’s All-Ireland success last year. The St. Thomas’ netminder made crucial saves in both the quarter-final and semi-final, while her lengthy puck-outs were a vital part of team strategy.
She also displayed tremendous mental fortitude to get over the concession of a goal from distance in that aforementioned quarter-final, and having an early penalty saved in the semi-final. Those disappointments made her subsequent saves and, in particular, her calm assuredness under the dropping ball and distribution to a teammate even more notable. Such unflappability is essential in the armoury of a goalkeeper.
Healy is a multiple All-Ireland Poc Fada champion and is renowned for her point-scoring from long-distance frees, which is something opposition forwards will need to be conscious of if GMIT progress in the Fr. Meachair Cup. The 19-year-old is a key weapon for the westerners.
MANAGEMENT / COACHING
The stellar cast is not confined to the pitch and the fact that some of the top minds in camogie and hurling have been involved in coaching and leadership roles for a number of years now attests to the status of the third-level competitions.
Waterford IT could boast a management/coaching triumvirate of Ann Downey, Paddy Mullally and Conor Phelan when they bestrode the Ashbourne scene and that trio went on to bring All-Ireland glory to Kilkenny in 2016 after a 22-year drought.
Now, it’s another Kilkenny blueblood involved with the home crew in Tommy Shefflin, who, like the aforementioned trio, won an All-Ireland as a player in the black and amber, while he was physical trainer of the Ballyhale Shamrocks outfit that garnered the last two All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship titles when his brother Henry was manager. He is joined by Shane Dunphy, who coached a progressive Waterford up until the end of last season, current Waterford player Iona Heffernan, and ex-Vikings star Jacqui O’Connor.
Elsewhere, Cork legend Linda Mellerick is a selector with UCC. Current Tipperary joint-captain and All-Star, Cáit Devane, is coach of UL, under the management of Adrian O’Sullivan, for whom she was an inspirational on-pitch leader.
Antrim and St. Gall’s dual star CJ McGourty – an All-Ireland winner at club football level 10 years ago – is manager of UUJ, while former All-Ireland-winning hurler with Cork, Christy Connery is in charge of Cork IT.