The “phenomenal” level of conditioning required to compete at the business end of the ladies football championship has been driven by Cork and Dublin, according to Ephie Fitzgerald.
Back-to-back All-Ireland champions Dublin collide with league winners Cork in Sunday’s TG4 All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park (3.45pm), their first championship meeting since last year’s All-Ireland decider.
Cork boss Fitzgerald says the two counties are responsible for raising the standard of the game over the past decade, insisting that both panels train every bit as hard as their male counterparts.
No county outside of Cork and Dublin has taken ownership of the Brendan Martin Cup since Galway were crowned champions back in 2004, while the two counties have met on All-Ireland final Sunday on five occasions since 2009.
Mick Bohan’s charges have held the upper hand in recent years, overcoming three consecutive final defeats (2014, ‘15, and ‘16) to secure back-to-back All-Irelands, but no county has pushed them closer than Cork during their current two-and-a-half-year 15-game unbeaten run in the championship - five points separated the pair at the end of last year’s closely-fought All-Ireland final.
Fitzgerald bolstered his panel during the off-season by bringing on board a handful of highly-rated teenagers, but it is his belief that it now takes younger players 12-18 months to get to the pitch of senior level because of the improved strength and conditioning standards set by Cork and Dublin.
“The level of conditioning needed to compete at this level is phenomenal and has been driven on by Cork and Dublin,” said Fitzgerald.
“These girls train every bit as hard as their male counterparts and that will be reflected in the level of commitment given [on Sunday], the physicality and the speed of the game as well.
“Dublin are well organised. They have a system of play that works for them. They work very, very hard off the ball. They are an imposing team when they don’t have the ball. They get the most out of themselves.
“Similar to our girls, they are very committed to the cause. If you look over the last 10 years, both counties have driven on ladies football and brought it to the standard that it is at now.”
Fitzgerald added: “There is a rivalry there, but it is a healthy rivalry between the two counties. I would hope Sunday will be a great spectacle from the point of view of the quality of football and the excitement that is generated. Ladies football has that special element where teams go at one another and it’ll be no different on Sunday.”
Dublin shaded last year’s decider by 3-11 to 1-12, the decisive score arriving 11 minutes from time when Carla Rowe bagged her second goal of a final watched by 50,141 to shove the Jackies four clear.
Where Dublin has a slight edge, reckons Fitzgerald, is they are a more experienced outfit than his. From the current Dublin team, Siobhan McGrath, Sinead Aherne, and Lyndsey Davey started the 2009 final defeat to the Rebels.
I think what Dublin [have] over us is what Cork had over Dublin for years — that little bit of experience and having that composure, coming down the stretch, to finish games off when games are tight. The only way you’ll get that is playing in these high profile games.
"To be fair to our girls, they’ve learned that and they are very good under pressure, but it takes time, particularly the younger ones. I think there are only seven girls left of the panel from when I came in (early 2016). That is a huge turnover in the space of three and a half years.
“Most of the Dublin girls have been involved in six or seven finals. You can’t buy that experience, particularly when they’ve lost some and kept coming back.
“They are up there and it is up to the rest of us to get there and to be able to compete with them at that level and I hope on Sunday that we will be able to give a good account of ourselves. I do think if we play to our potential that it is going to be very, very close.”
The Cork boss believes his side have improved since last year’s final reverse to Sunday’s opponents.
“Well, we won the league and the Munster championship so we certainly can’t be doing any more than we have been doing. We have improved our panel immeasurably. Training-wise and competition-wise, things have certainly improved. There is more of an edge to training. And we are a year older too.”