Eimear Ryan: I was willing Ashling Thompson's last puck to go over

Like most neutrals, I was willing Ashling Thompson’s last puck of the game to go over. I wasn’t ready for this pulsating, intensely physical game of camogie to be over
Eimear Ryan: I was willing Ashling Thompson's last puck to go over

JUMPING FOR JOY: Kilkenny captain Aoife Prendergast, left, celebrates with the O'Duffy Cup and teammates after their side's victory over Cork. Pic: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Like most neutrals, I was willing Ashling Thompson’s last puck of the game to go over. I mistakenly believed that extra time would be invoked in the event of a draw, and I wasn’t ready for this pulsating, intensely physical game of camogie to be over. 

But more than that – in narrative terms, it made sense. It was so difficult to separate these teams that it seemed cruel for one to have to lose. I’ve never been one of the ‘a draw was the fairest result’ brigade, but here I came close.

Kilkenny blitzed Cork in the opening twenty minutes, so dominant in the middle third and crowding Cork on the ball that you feared it would be a one-sided affair. 

But slowly Cork worked their way into the match, Thompson and Hannah Looney turning the midfield battle in Cork’s favour and Amy Lee’s arrowed puckouts launching Cork’s attacks. As soon as Cork got a handle on the game, they were arguably the better team; but though they are a side that thrives in adversity, they may have left themselves with too much to do.

Kilkenny, on the other hand, had banked enough quality early on that they managed to absorb their later mistakes. No one embodied this more than Denise Gaule, who missed some eminently scoreable frees, handed over to player of the match Katie Nolan, and took back the responsibility in injury time, nailing a high-pressure free to win the game. 

I’ve written before about my anxiety over teams switching up freetakers mid-game; rarely does it work out, but here it seemed to, perhaps because Gaule and Nolan seemed to derive confidence from having the other to lean on, rather than feeling undermined and pressurised.

The physicality

Ray Kelly refereed with a distinctly light touch, an approach that won him praise from most quarters. While I winced at some crunching tackles that went unchecked, one of the most refreshing factors was the absence of frees for that most confusing and controversial of camogie rules: charging. 

I counted at least three thundering head-on collisions, but at no point was the player in possession penalised for being unable to dodge an opponent who materialised in her path. It’s tough on teams, because the rules of refereeing change frequently even over the course of a season. 

A ref in the round-robin stages might be a stickler for the rule book, whereas a ref in the later, televised stages might prioritise the spectacle and decide to let it flow. The goalposts are always moving, and the sooner that the Association can write off antiquated rules like charging, the better.

Great losing performances

There has been much talk recently of great performances on the wrong side of an All-Ireland result – Shane Walsh in the football, TJ Reid in the hurling – and Cork had a number of standout players. Chief among these was Fiona Keating, who spotted a gap in Kilkenny’s defence and backed herself to burst in and bury a goal in the 20th minute. 

This score, Cork’s first, ignited their comeback. Keating tagged on two points from play as well as a mountain of work, showing superb leadership for a young player.

Katrina Mackey also put in a massive shift with three points from play, including two equalisers: one on the stroke of half-time, and another in the 59th minute after sub Sophie O’Dwyer slotted a crucial goal to give Kilkenny the lead. My favourite, though, was her point from under the Cusack Stand in the 42nd minute: on the run, under pressure, hugging the sideline. 

As a spectator, there is nothing like murmuring fervently under your breath ‘don’t shoot from there’ at the TV, only for the player in question to fire it over with confidence. You see then how wrong you were – the player wasn’t shooting out of desperation or lack of options, but because she knew she could nail it. It’s nice to be wrong sometimes. Never in doubt.

Waterford in the ascendancy 

A good news story from this year’s championship has been the breakthrough of Waterford into an All-Ireland semi-final, having bowed out at quarter-final stage four years in a row. They hurled superbly in the semi-final, holding Cork at arm’s length for three-quarters of the match, and while they should be proud of their year, I hope they nurture a splinter of ice in their hearts over the winter, and come back even stronger in 2023.

Niamh Rockett, Beth Carton and Lorraine Bray have all had phenomenal years, but my favourite moment from their campaign came from Bray’s midfield partner Clara Griffin in the quarter-final against Limerick. Left with only the handle of a hurley after a clash, Griffin tussled with wing-back Mairéad Ryan, eventually roll-lifting the ball with what was essentially a wooden spoon in her hand. A viral moment if ever there was one.

Mams play too 

One of the most striking elements of the junior final between Antrim and Armagh – aside from Dervla Cosgrove’s astonishing goal spree, including a hat-trick within 84 seconds – was the fact that Armagh had two mothers on the pitch: joint captain Michelle McArdle, a mother of three, and former Cork star Jennifer Curry (nee O’Leary), a mam of two. 

I’d been remarking recently on how common (and adorable) a sight it is to see kiddos in tiny jerseys running onto the pitch to congratulate or console their dads on All-Ireland final day; photos of babies in the Sam Maguire are practically a meme at this stage. But it’s not often we get to see mothers who are also playing at the top of their game (with exceptions: Briege Corkery and Brid Stack come to mind). 

The reasons for this are obviously complex and individual, but I suspect it’s not so much bouncing back physically after pregnancy, but the demands on young mothers’ time. Being a new mother is a full-time job, and so is being an intercounty player; it’s very difficult to have it all. 

Well done to Armagh camogie for clearly being a supportive environment for their players who are parents, and to McArdle and Curry for being an inspiration to mothers – and even more importantly, to their kids.

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