Ann Downey (centre) was manager of the year for 2016
The Liberty Insurance All-Ireland senior camogie championship final on Sunday week in Croke Park (4pm) is a repeat of last year’s decider in which Kilkenny put paid to Cork’s three-in-a-row bid with a four-point victory.
Earlier the Cats had won the National League Division 1 final. There were just three points separating them at Semple Stadium but just as in September, the sense was that the victors were more comfortable than the margin suggested.
Add the fact that they are now one step from a fourth consecutive national title, a ‘double-double’, and there is no doubt that Ann Downey’s side have established themselves firmly as the undisputed number one outfit of the game.
That will rankle with Cork, not least because they have failed to sparkle in those last two major clashes, due to a combination of Kilkenny’s quality and their own underperformance. Being accustomed to a place on the top step of the podium, they will want it back.
Neither side pulled up trees in their semi-finals. A portion of this can be accredited to the longer lay-offs (five weeks for Cork, four for Kilkenny) compared to facing teams buoyed by quarter-final triumphs a fortnight previously, but it would be wrong to minimise the efforts of the players and managements of both Dublin and Galway in terms of performance and tactical application.
Kilkenny did not have it all their own way in the group phase, needing a point from 2016 Player of the Year Denise Gaule to escape with a share of the spoils against Clare in Nowlan Park on July 1.
As has been customary under a management set-up that has always learned lessons from mild setbacks, and a roster that has applied them well, they came out the next week and were full value for a five-point win over Galway in Athenry that helped cement their direct progress to the last four.
Kilkenny got off to a perfect start against Dublin with a goal from a penalty by Gaule two minutes in, but were still only five points clear by the time substitute Jenny Clifford sent a rocket to the Dublin net in injury time, having struggled with the high intensity and physicality of the Metropolitans, and the direct running of the likes of Siobhán Kehoe.
The Stripeywomen’s much vaunted attack spluttered and there were only glimpses of the counter-attacking game from deep that has yielded such dividends.
Once more though, one expects that there will be an improvement and that Downey will be happier that her charges were put through the ringer rather than enjoying the cakewalk many had predicted.
The depth of the panel was advertised once more too with the continuing blossoming of newcomer Danielle Morrissey, and the impact off the bench of Clifford and Jenny Reddy.
Kilkenny have serious operators in every line, from Emma Kavanagh in goal, right through Anne Dalton, who was magnificent against Dublin, captain Anna Farrell, Katie Power, Gaule and Shelly Farrell to name just a few.
Many of those will be smarting from quiet outings last time out and it is reasonable to expect a response.
Whereas the Cats ground it out in the second half in their semi-final, Cork were hanging on against Galway but this was always expected to be a stern challenge given the talent at the westerners’ disposal.
It said much therefore, that Cork were leading by eight points early in the second half and it could have been much more had they not spurned four goal chances.
What was notable too was that they found a way to win, as they have done so often over the years. Galway had all the momentum in the final quarter but Cork stemmed the tide, thanks to the likes of Chloe Sigerson, Rena Buckley and Ashling Thompson.
Like Kilkenny, some stars did not enjoy their best of days but Hannah Looney and Niamh McCarthy stood up to the plate and Orla Cotter was exceptional in the first half in particular. Apart from the aforementioned, Aoife Murray and Katrina Mackey are key operators.
The message coming from the Cork camp all summer has been that they are playing catch-up on Kilkenny, even as they cruised through their group with a 100% record. Paudie Murray continued the theme after the semi-final, but beating a team as strong as Galway after a five-week lay-off was no mean feat.
Again, one can expect the engine to be running more smoothly on the biggest day of all.
Kilkenny’s hunger remains insatiable despite their recent success while Cork’s appetite is ravenous after some of the recent reverses. The teams play similar styles, attempting to cut off space in their own halves and to create it in the oppositions, harnessing the speed at their disposal to fashion scoring opportunities.
What measures might be taken to neutralise the opposition strengths will be intriguing. We cannot wait.
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