Hoping a stellar season ends on a high

It was a moment made for A Season of Sundays. After Cork got over the line against Galway in the All-Ireland camogie semi-final, a heartbroken Aoife Donohue knelt crumpled on the pitch.

Hoping a stellar season ends on a high

She’d had an enterprising game, coursing up and down the field from her corner-forward position and chipping in with four points. But despite not scoring for 28 minutes in the second half, Cork gritted their teeth and held on.

Pivotal to their defence of their slim lead was midfielder Ashling Thompson, who dropped deep and helped fill the gap left by the injured Gemma O’Connor.

At the final whistle, Thompson went over and pulled Donohue to her feet, hugging her. It was a moment of pure empathy – Thompson knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of a result – and of respect, given that the two have met numerous times with their county sides down the years, as well as with their clubs, Milford of Cork and Mullagh of Galway.

It was a fitting way to close a tense and hard-fought match.

Tomorrow, Cork face Kilkenny in a rematch of last year’s senior final, the main difference being that this year, Cork go into it underdogs rather than favourites. Having won both league and championship last year, Kilkenny are gunning for the double-double: this year’s league is already under their belts.

Cork, meanwhile, will have their 27th All-Ireland title if they win, edging them past Dublin to become the most decorated camogie county of all time.

Kilkenny have been impressive all year, beating a young, determined Dublin side last month. Dublin, who were in their first semi-final appearance since 1990, did an admirable job of keeping Kilkenny’s goal threat at bay, an early clinical penalty by Denise Gaule notwithstanding.

In response to Dublin’s swarming defence, Kilkenny simply picked off long-range points all afternoon, anchored by centre-back Ann Dalton’s flawless ball delivery.

Dublin hung in there through Aisling Maher and Faye McCarthy’s freetaking, but a scorching injury-time goal from substitute Jenny Clifford gave Kilkenny some breathing space. In all, nine of Kilkenny’s players scored from play.

This will be Cork’s challenge: how will they curb the influence of Dalton, who effortlessly picks out forwards? How will they disrupt the almost preternatural understanding between Kilkenny’s midfield sister act, Anna and Meighan Farrell?

How do you minimise the scoring of a team who will happily throw over long-range points from all angles, or outlast a squad whose forwards are so fit they regularly track back to help the full-back line?

Unfortunately for Cork, they’ll have to do it without their centre-back and playmaker, O’Connor who sustained a serious knee in injury against Galway.

Rena Buckley or Ashling Thompson would be ideal picks to slot in at centre back, but O’Connor’s physicality, cool head and impeccable striking will a loss.

Having said all that, Cork can take huge positives from their semi-final win over Galway, arguably a tougher semi-final test than Kilkenny’s. Galway had the momentum for much of the second half, and with ten minutes remaining it was a two-point game.

It took the defence a while to settle after O’Connor’s departure, and Galway substitute Niamh Hanniffy showed great initiative and footwork to nip in for a goal in the 49th minute.

For the remainder of the match, however, the defence held out, with Chloe Sigerson, Laura Treacy and Rena Buckley in particular rock-solid. Katrina Mackey’s well-worked point at the end of normal time gave them a three-point cushion.

While Cork’s 28-minute dry spell in the second half will be a worry going into the final, they can take great confidence from their gutsy defence of their slim lead. They’ll also take heart from strong showings from their forwards, in particular Orla Cotter, whose strength in the air, work ethic and attacking instincts paid off with a vital goal just before half-time.

Full-forward Niamh McCarthy, a 2017 find, also showed impressive physicality and instinct on the edge of the square.

“It won’t be one for the spectator,” said Cork manager Paudie Murray, wryly predicting a low-scoring game against Kilkenny. His forwards may have something to say about that.

A final word for any new camogie spectators this weekend: because the Camogie Association has always been on a different track from the GAA, rules diverge on occasion.

Think of the differences not so much as specific ‘camogie rules’ as hurling rules from a different era. For example: while the GAA phased out the handpass goal in the late 1980s, presumably to the delight of goalkeepers everywhere, camogie kept it in.

Expect to see some handpassed finishes this weekend, though one can only hope that camogie will soon phase out this awkward rule (I say this as someone who has probably scored more handpass goals than struck goals in my career).

Here’s one for the traditionalists. More recently, camogie and hurling rules diverged again when the GAA changed the penalty format, but camogie kept the established three-on- a-line style.

You can still cross the 21 while taking a penalty in camogie; while no one is yet doing it with Anthony Nash’s gusto, the set-piece often remains a keeper’s speciality – see Aoife Murray coolly roofing it against Galway in the semi-final.

Finally, and most importantly: enjoy the game. This has been a wonderful year for camogie and women’s team sports in general – let’s see it out with a bang.

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Saturday, August 13, 2022

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