AIB All-Ireland Club Camogie Finals Previews
Loughgiel Shamrocks (Antrim) v Sarsfields (Galway), 6.30pm, Croke Park. Referee: Liz Dempsey (Kilkenny)
Sarsfields are in their sixth final in seven seasons and aiming to increase their conversion rate to 50 per cent by going back-to-back for the first time. The East Galway outfit secured their second AIB Camogie All-Ireland Club senior title last March, when they gained revenge on Oulart-The Ballagh, who had dethroned them in the previous season’s decider, played just three months earlier.
They are a team of many talents and while All-Star Orlaith McGrath is a considerable loss having suffered another cruciate knee ligament injury in the summer, they can still call on a catalogue of top-tier operators whose gear bags rattle, not just with All-Ireland club medals, but with senior inter-county ones too.
McGrath’s sisters Siobhán, Clodagh and inspirational skipper Niamh, Maria Cooney, Tara Kenny, Sarah Spellman and Laura Ward are pivotal figures. Siobhán’s goal from a 46th minute penalty gave them the breathing space they needed to overcome St Vincent’s of Dublin in the semi-final last Saturday. They had begun in lightning fashion, moving five points clear early on and then stretched that to six but the concession of a goal left them leading by just the minimum at the interval.
They were four ahead after Siobhán followed her penalty with a point from free as she brought her tally to 1-7 and they needed every one of those with just one between them at the death.
Michael ‘Hopper’ McGrath’s crew had earlier been pushed all the way by Oranmore/Maree as they bagged a fourth county title on the spin, needing goals from Shannon Corcoran and Clara Donohoe to emerge victorious.
Loughgiel have had to be patient over the years, dealing with a series of heartbreaks along the way but an apparently bottomless reservoir of resilience sees them preparing for their first ever All-Ireland senior final and attempting to become the second Antrim team to go all the way. The Saffron powerhouses – their nine-point defeat of Ballycastle was their seventh consecutive county championship success - had suffered as Derry giants Slaughtneil registered three All-Irelands on the trot and six Ulsters in succession, the provincial titles all garnered at the Shamrocks’ expense.
Loughgiel had shown more than enough to suggest that they weren’t far off however, and this year, they finally claimed the coveted scalp of their Oak Leaf rivals to claim a seventh Ulster title but their first since 2015, with five points in hand at the final whistle thanks to goals from Antrim stars Róisín McCormick and Caitrin Dobbin.
Part of Slaughtneil’s legacy is cementing a belief, inside and outside of Ulster, that the northern contingent are genuine contenders for the Bill & Agnes Carroll Cup. Loughgiel proved their mettle by accounting for the Robert Emmets and then following up against Tipperary’s Drom & Inch last weekend, when Dobbin and McCormick were once again among the goals, along with Annie Lynn.
They carry a very clear attacking threat that Sarsfields will be conscious of and are also sound defensively, while Amy Boyle and Lucia McNaughton form an excellent midfield.
It all adds up to a mouth-watering battle.
Clonduff (Down) v James Stephens (Kilkenny), 4.15pm, Croke Park. Referee: Cathal McAllister (Cork)
The return of three legendary figures, who had taken a year out to have babies, has propelled Clonduff all the way to Croke Park and a shot at a second AIB Camogie All-Ireland intermediate title.
Paula O’Hagan was captain and player of the match when the Down side eked out a one-point victory at HQ in March 2019, while sisters Fionnuala Carr and Sara-Louise Graffin were major contributors also.
The trio have enjoyed the ultimate success in the black and red of the Mourne County too, so one can only imagine the fillip to their clubmates when the trio returned to the fray this season, buggies in tow along with a considerable compilation of ability and leadership.
Throw others such as skipper Jenna Boden, Clare Kearney, an All-Ireland premier junior championship winner with Antrim this year, and goal sneak Beth Fitzpatrick into the mix and it’s easy to see why Clonduff are so close to the summit once more.
A green flag from Fitzpatrick just before the interval was a critical score in the provincial decider against Eglish, at Páirc Esler, as it brought the teams level going into the dressing rooms. Boosted by that rapier thrust, Clonduff chiselled out the victory from there.
They displayed mammoth character to emerge from a rip-roaring All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry’s courageous Clanmaurice last Saturday, needing two last-ditch levellers before emerging successful at the end of two periods of extra time by a five-point margin that was a mite flattering.
They trailed by four points at the break but O’Hagan and Graffin exerted a greater influence after the resumption, eventually scoring 13 points between them, while Carr also thundered into the fray and Clanmaurice were held to two second-half scores. Graffin shot the first equaliser, while O’Hagan held her nerve from a placed ball to drill the second one.
Clonduff had just that bit more legs perhaps in the final period of extra time and had nosed two points ahead when Fitzpatrick removed all doubt with a goal in the game’s final act.
James Stephens have embarked on a tremendous journey in recent years, soaring to this stage just little more than two years after making the breakthrough at junior level in Kilkenny.
They signalled their progress by going through league and championship unbeaten this term, overcoming the stern resistance of Rower-Inistioge in the championship decider. Next up were Raharney (Westmeath) and St Brigid’s (Laois) before Carlow champions Myshall were accounted for by five points in a Leinster final that amounted to a riveting battle of wills.
Management will love how their troops continue to navigate choppy waters and Castlegar (Galway) offered up another stern examination of their credentials at the penultimate hurdle before being beaten by five points.
Kilkenny’s goal-scoring All-Ireland final heroine, Sophie O’Dwyer is a key figure, with her accuracy from placed balls another string to her bow. Michelle Teehan and Niamh Deely are other stars of the black and amber who have helped propel The Village to this juncture, as they attempt to become the second Noreside club to win at this grade.
It is worth noting that while Teehan has established herself in the Kilkenny team as a corner-back, her more natural role is more advanced and it was her goal after a brilliant length-of-the-field move that ended Castlegar’s resistance.
Emma Manogue and Emma Gaffney are others who James Stephens followers will be looking to if they are to deliver more silverware but the likelihood is that there is very little between these two well-balanced units and that this is one that will go all the way down to the wire.