Another weekend, another classic pairing of Munster teams, writes Eimear Ryan.
The All- Ireland camogie championship throws in today, with Tipp v Cork in The Ragg, Thurles as one of four opening fixtures. Maybe it’s the good-natured friction that arises from being a Tipp woman living in Cork, but this clash intrigues me. We can only hope for the same end-to-end thrills the hurlers provided three weeks ago in the first round of the Munster Championship, though we could do without the WhatsApp scandals and rampant rumours swirling around the Tipp camp afterwards.
Lads and their drama, am I right?
Though they only edged out Tipp by a point in their league encounter back in March, Cork will be strong favourites going into the match. They’ll be smarting from a surprise Munster final loss to Limerick last month and will want to set down a marker. However, there is a quiet confidence about Tipp this year; a sense the squad, which has been there or thereabouts for the last few years, is ready to step beyond being merely a team with potential. Though they took a while to find their form in the league, they finished strong, beating Dublin and Wexford.
Three of their key players are featured on a striking Tipp FM billboard that popped up in towns around the county. Captain Mary Ryan is a versatile, stylish hurler with a habit of catching ball over the heads of much taller opponents, while Cáit Devane and Nicole Walsh are clever, aggressive forwards with killer instincts in front of goal. All three will have to perform to their peak if Tipp are to edge out Cork today.
While there’s a sense of something about to ignite in Tipp, there’s also no getting away from the cold hard stats: Tipp’s last All-Ireland win was in 2004 and Cork’s was in 2015. Cork have a winning habit and an absolute belief in themselves, an invaluable trait in any team, one which Kilkenny have only recently begun to threaten. Cork’s dominance is perhaps best symbolised by their captain, Inniscarra’s Rena Buckley, who has won six camogie All-Irelands and four All Stars – not to speak of her football achievements. (The die-hard hurling fan in me was pleased that she chose camogie over football this year, in what must have been an agonising if necessary decision.) Orla Cotter, another important leader, will most likely be returning from injury hungrier than ever, while Gemma O’Connor’s commanding presence is augmented by her ability to effortlessly plant a ball over the bar from the halfway line.
If you’re new to camogie and a little confused at how things work on this side of the pitch, let me break it down for you. Similar to the proposed revamp of the hurling championship, the camogie All-Ireland series is played on a round robin basis. There are two groups of five teams, and you have to play everyone. In this year’s draw, Clare, Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny and Waterford make up Group 1, while Group 2 consists of Cork, Offaly, Limerick, Tipperary and Wexford. The winners of each group go straight through to the semi-finals; second and third in each group are seeded into the quarter-finals. (The provincial championships, it should be noted, are completely separate from the All-Ireland series.)
This year’s championship looks to be wide open. While last year’s finalists, Kilkenny and Cork, are obvious favourites to top their respective groups, all the other counties will fancy their chances at a quarter-final slot. Wexford, who won a three- in-a-row not so long ago (2010 to 2012), are perhaps a power on the wane.
However, the depth of experience on their team can’t be underestimated. Kate Kelly, now in her mid-30s, is a fine striker of the ball and one of my favourite players, even as she was breaking Tipp hearts with a winning injury-time free in last year’s quarter-final. Galway, whose last title was in 2013, can never be written off either. They looked in flying form in 2016, bowing out in the year’s best game: a semi-final thriller against Kilkenny that finished 3-15 to 1-19 after extra time.
Limerick will be buzzing after winning their first ever senior provincial title last month, beating Cork 1-13 to 0-14 – although perhaps it’ll be of concern to them that 11 points of their tally came from captain and lethal free-taker Niamh Mulcahy. They face another young up and coming team in Offaly at the Gaelic Grounds today, in what promises to be a cracker – although one would imagine that the bounce of the Munster title should propel Limerick to victory.
Champions Kilkenny, of course, remain the team to beat. Their fitness, decisiveness, and aggression on the ball in last year’s championship gave them the necessary edge to overcome Cork and win an All-Ireland for the first time in 22 years; that they retained their league title this year shows mettle and a hunger to retain the O’Duffy Cup as well. Anne Dalton and Denise Gaule are team linchpins at centre back and half forward respectively, while their inspirational manager, Ann Downey, is the first bona-fide camogie star of the modern age to turn mentor. Kilkenny face Waterford today at Walsh Park and should win comfortably.
All in all, it promises to be an exciting summer for camogie fans. It was announced in the last week that for the first time, all knockout games in the senior championship will be broadcast live on RTÉ. That’s five matches: two quarter- finals (August 5), two semis (August 19) and a final (September 10). My delight at this news is tempered by frustration it took until 2017 to make camogie accessible to a ready-made, GAA-mad television audience.
Still, when you consider that last year was the first time that even the semi-finals were broadcast, it’s rapid progress. Long may it continue to expand and thrive.
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