Thank goodness for September Sundays. Even though the hurling championship, in its new compressed, more efficient form, no longer involves a September day out, we still have camogie.
It’s the pinnacle of the year, in which the women’s code takes over Croker for the day and the RTÉ TV schedule while they’re at it. Yesterday, the junior, intermediate and senior titles were all decided on that immaculate plaid-striped pitch.
From the off, the senior match-up between Cork and Kilkenny was always going to be something to savour. Like the Tipp-Kilkenny hurling finals of 2009-11, this was to be the third outing in an epic trilogy.
Part of what makes these clashes so fun for neutrals is the iconic rivalry between Paudie Murray and Ann Downey. On the face of it, they’re opposites: Paudie is all swagger and fighting words, while Ann is all deflection and steely focus.
But, as Elaine Aylward astutely points out in the commentary box, they’re actually very similar — both perfectionists, both razor-sharp hurling brains, both tireless in their preparation. Both dressing rooms are clearly inspiring places to be.
In the end, the final was nearly a carbon copy of last year’s tight, dogged, point-for-point affair. Last year’s attendance was the biggest ever at 20,438; this year shaded it with 21,453.
Last year’s game was the first goalless final since 2009. This year repeated that clean-sheet statistic — though were it not for Aoife Murray’s cool head and quick reactions in the 52nd minute, saving both a kicked and handpassed effort, it could have been a much different result.
Murray was equally immense in her acceptance speech — emotional but composed. Clearly bursting with pride, she noted that “difficult conversations” and “honesty” are what get you over the line.
It’s certainly been a sensational year for Cork camogie, winning the double that eluded them last year. Remarkable to think that the immensely talented intermediate panel will now graduate out of the grade and be pushing for senior places next year, essentially creating a 60-woman strong elite squad in Cork. Their reign could continue a long while yet.
While this year it was Orla Cotter’s turn to be the hero at the death, the game’s denouement lacked last year’s dramatic punch, when Gemma O’Connor and Julia White’s magnificent points from play gave Cork a thrilling victory. This year’s final was higher scoring — 0-14 to 0-13 as opposed to last year’s 0-10 to 0-9 — but the collective heart-rate of viewers was probably more stable.
Referee Eamon Cassidy had a huge bearing on the pace of the game, with his tendency to award frees rather than play the advantage rule. Anne Marie Hayes in the commentary box spoke for many of us when she complained about the lack of flow in the game.
“The match is a small bit dead,” she observed at 43 minutes. With about 10 minutes to go, she added: “We could do with a goal, Marty, just to liven it up.”
There was a sense of the game as chess match: two rivals who knew each other inside out, and it was just a matter of who would blink first.
A combination of defensive set-ups, the tricky swirling wind, and the ref’s tight hold on the game meant that the viewer came away feeling that we never got to see the full extent of what these players can do. Indeed, for Orla Cotter’s last match-winning free, which she won herself, you could tell she didn’t expect to win it; when she went to ground, she got up again quickly and played the ball on.
Her resulting nerves-of-steel conversion was incredible to watch, but it’s frustrating when a ref doesn’t allow a game to flow freely — especially when the players are clearly ready, willing and able for a tough physical challenge.
As tight as the game was, you always sensed that Cork had more in the tank — more reserves to draw upon, more experience, more options up front.
They have a knack for finishing strong, having eked out last year’s win and having whittled down Kilkenny’s ten-point lead in this year’s league final to just the minimum. And their forwards give consistent value, from Katrina Mackey’s hardworking point in the 23rd minute, recycled out the field by Linda Collins, to Orla Cronin’s two stunners from play just before half-time, to Amy O’Connor’s 56th-minute equaliser, which turned the game in Cork’s favour.
Kilkenny’s defensive setup meant that often their only option was to run at the Cork defence and hope to draw a free. They hit plenty of high ball down on top of the industrious Katie Power at full-forward, but often there was no one running off her for the break. Their overreliance on their two towering players — on Ann Dalton’s distribution from centre-back and Denise Gaule’s shooting up front — meant that they had fewer options to draw on when the game was in its decisive stages.
At the same time, Kilkenny deserve credit for the ferocious pressure they put on Cork’s marquee players. Ashling Thompson made a vital interception in the dying moments to cut out a Kilkenny attack, but it had otherwise been an uncharacteristically quiet afternoon for her. That Cork weathered the storm of Kilkenny’s physicality shows what deserving champions they are.
The entertaining intermediate final, which saw a brilliant young Cork team end years of hurt, had one bitter note: the sending off of Down’s Sara-Louise Carr in the 48th minute. Her second yellow was harsh to say the least; having collected the ball with her back to goal, she turned to move, and immediately collided with a Cork defender.
Carr’s actions were deemed to be “charging” by referee John Darmody and she was sent to the line. In the closing moments of the senior game, Kilkenny’s Davina Tobin was unlucky to be booked for a similar incident. If the charging rule continues to be enforced so punitively, will attacking players simply stop trying to break the tackle?
In the long run, the rulebook is something that the Camogie Association will have to look at. The fact that shoulder-to-shoulder contact is still technically prohibited shows the need for an update. Jostling is an inevitable part of the sport — whether the players are male or female, U12 or senior, club or intercounty. Please don’t ask our female players to hold back when all they want to do is drive on.
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