Is (overdue) change in the air for camogie championship?

Is (overdue) change in the air for camogie championship?
STAND AND DELIVER: At the launch of the 2019 Liberty Insurance Camogie Championship and All-Star tour announcement are Cait Devane (Tipperary): Grace Walsh (Kilkenny); Gemma O’Connor (Cork); Sarah Dervan (Galway), and Aisling Maher (Dublin). Picture Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Losing last year’s All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny hurt Galway camogie captain Sarah Dervan so much she did something, you imagine, that was totally alien to her usually sunny disposition.

“I went back to work the following day but I had to leave...I wasn’t able,” she groans. “I just needed a few days on my own, I just needed to close my mind from everybody.”

It was their third loss to the stripey women in one season yet Galway looked like they had grabbed a foothold after half-time, when three Carrie Dolan frees edged them 0-7 to 0-6 ahead.

Hope had risen and then, bang!

Katie Power goaled, the fight suddenly leeched out of them and their final scoreline (1-7 to 1-10) was flattered by a Rebecca Hennelly penalty deep into injury-time.

For a team boosted with some stars from their 2017 All-Ireland winning minors and a new manager, the westerners capitulated too easily and they knew it.

“We were there or thereabouts, Next thing Kilkenny got a goal and before we knew it we were five or six points down and the game was gone from us, just like that,” Dervan says, clicking her fingers.

That’s why their victory in this year’s Littlewoods Division 1 final was so important.

It wasn’t just that they stopped Kilkenny’s bid for four league titles in a row or that it was their own first silverware since 2015 and happened in Croke Park.

It was the way they exercised their physical and mental muscle.

They flew out of the traps and held an eight-point lead in the second half.

Yes, they let that slip to just a point by coughing up two bad goals but the difference, as Dervan notes, “was that we responded well.

“Niamh Hanniffy got an unbelievable point (after the first goal). That probably made us think ‘lads it’s not going to be the same story, it’s not going to happen again’ and we got another point after that.”

For this Galway team, who also drew with Cork in the league, it was a timely and significant scalp and the psychological impact was reflected in wing-back Tara Kenny’s illuminating post-match comments.

“I think we’re mentally stronger this year,” Kenny said.

“People have looked at us sometimes nearly like we’re spoofers or bluffers, but we’ve worked hard and we’ll keep the head down now.”

It was a boost for camogie as a whole too.

Right now its top players are agitating for rules and refereeing to change — to reflect their skills and expand their audience.

They’re right. The game doesn’t need any more whistle-pocked big games nor a third, consecutive free-fest and goal-less All-Ireland senior final.

But, equally, if camogie is to continue to grow its standard and audience, it desperately needs less one-sided games, more serious championship contenders and someone, especially, able to put it up to Cork and Kilkenny who have so dominated the past five years.

Galway, by tradition and skill, have long been the likeliest and not just because they broke that five-final losing streak in 2013.

They reached the 2015 All-Ireland final too, and only lost to Cork by a goal in the 2017 semi-finals but, too often, when push comes to shove, their current side has looked like a team whose considerable individual talents are greater than the sum of their parts. Now they look to have some proper physicality and cohesion.

Beating Kilkenny in a league final laid down a marker, and the fact that they’re meeting them so quickly in today’s round-robin championship opener has added an extra frisson.

They come in cold with no provincial campaign to sharpen them but the steel they’ve shown so far in 2019 has whetted appetites.

It’s surely no coincidence their strength and conditioning coach Robbie Lane had them back training last November, two months earlier than usual.

The players themselves demanded changes last year and got it when Cathal Murray came in as manager mid-season, with a backroom team that also includes Orla Kilkenny, a local legend.

“She has so much experience and knowledge and knows how to deal with players and bring them on,” Dervan says.

“When Orla speaks you listen. The confidence and belief the management as a whole is bringing to us, that we don’t usually have, is huge. They trust us and believe in us and we respond really well to that.”

Murray has them playing a more attacking and systematic game.

Switching forward ace Aoife Donoghue to midfield has proved a brilliant stroke and earned her Division 1 Player of the Year. Now it’s the Big Dance though and no one doubts that ‘Championship’ is always the Rebels’ and Kittens’ priority.

Kilkenny are stung from being pipped in the last two finals and were noticeably short some big-name players for the league final.

Grace Walsh (ankle injury) was one of them and didn’t hide her enthusiasm for this early summer re-match when asked about it at the official 2019 Liberty Championship launch.

“I’m ready to have a crack at them, hopefully, if I get my name on the teamsheet,” she grinned.

“Playing against Galway in championship is my favourite game of the year.”

Punters are equally hoping there’ll be fireworks in Athenry today when defending champions Cork open with an away trip to Sixmilebridge in their Munster-heavy group that also includes Tipperary, Waterford, Dublin and Meath. The Rebels won their last two All-Irelands by a point but three times since 2005 have their three in-a-row dreams been thwarted (2007, 2019 and 2016) — surely a key motivator for Paudie Murray and some veteran stars staying on? Right now it’s hard not to picture Aoife Murray and Gemma O’Connor in a blood red sci-fi lair somewhere, sharpening their talons and smiling enigmatically...like Bond baddies patiently awaiting that final scene.

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