Hurling and camogie

Savage sisters at the heart of Down camogie revival

The Savage sisters, Deirbhile, Alannah and Blanaid. Picture: Brendan Monaghan
Séamas McAleenan

Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Intermediate Championship Final: Sunday September 9 in Croke Park: Cork v Down

A QUEEN’s PhD Psychology Research student is still trying to work out in her head how the Down camogie team and management have turned their season around and are just one hour away from adding a first All-Ireland Intermediate crown in 20 years to the Ulster title they won in June after a 13-year gap.

Alannah Savage is in the third and final year of her PhD working with visually impaired children exploring their movement patterns and how that knowledge can be applied to improving their motor skills.

But the Mourne county full-back thinks that her team’s journey through 2018 could provide the subject for another thesis within the Psychology Department.

“It has been some journey and well worth examining in detail!

“We were absolutely tanked in the first league game against Westmeath; we were struggling for a team. But even that day, you could see that none of the girls wanted to throw in the towel. The work-rate was there.

“But we have proven this year that if players have the right attitude and work-rate and you put them into the right environment they can improve and produce result.”

Down struggled through the league, losing all their games and were left searching for a management team at the end. Martina Rooney, a selector during the league, took over the management reins despite having no previous experience of managing a senior team at any level, and she, along with captain Fionnuala Carr, turned the season on its head.

“Martina and Fionnuala are very positive people and they really have put across from Day 1 that they have a belief in us.

“When there is that type of environment around you, and you get individuals with commitment, perseverance and a work ethic, things start to happen.

“We responded as individuals and as a team. We have great leaders within the group. We improved in each game, learnt from mistakes, gained confidence from results and kept moving forward.”

A Division 2 relegation play-off with Kildare was the first hurdle successfully negotiated, then an Ulster semi-final against Armagh and a shock 2-12 to 0-13 win in the final over Derry.

Down then drew with Derry in the first group game of the All-Ireland Intermediate competition and followed it up with a comfortable win over Carlow before the wheels came off the wagon in Páirc Esler against eventual final opponents Cork.

“We played well enough during the first half of that game without getting the scores. But for the second half, we lost our shape badly and that half-hour would have been our worst performance.

“There were lessons to be learnt from that game and we took them on board before we played Laois. We had an opportunity to redeem ourselves there and we did exactly that. We got our belief back.”

Then in the All-Ireland semi-final they came from behind to beat Tipperary and reach Croke Park.

That game was significant for the Savage family in that her 17-years-old sister Blánaid got her first start at wing-half back. Another sister Deirbhile has played in most of the games this year including the Ulster final win over Derry.

Deirbhile and yet another sister Aoife were in the Down panel that won the All-Ireland Junior four years ago.

“I missed out on that win because I was doing my primary degree in St Andrew’s in Scotland at the time and was only home for the summer camogie season.

“It is great to pull on any jersey, club or county, with your sisters and when the three of us can share a journey like Down’s together it is really special.”

Alannah didn’t play any camogie until Ballygalget started an under 14 team in her final year. Since then the eldest of five Savage sisters (youngest Saerlaith helped the club win an All-Ireland Div 2 Féile nan Gael title in June) has progressed through the ranks and the club has gone from Division 4 through to Division 1 in Down winning the county Junior and Intermediate titles along the way.

Last year they reached the Down senior final for the first time in half a century.

“Ballygalget have only won one county senior title – in 1968 – and we as a club would hope to end that drought.

“We have a difficult draw this year, Liatroim first and holders Clonduff are in the same side of the draw. But we don’t have to worry about that until after the All-Ireland.”

And that leaves the Psychology Research student time to make Croke Park her primary focus.

“Of course we are really looking forward to playing in Croke Park. Many of the girls were there before, but you have to be excited about it.

“It will be a great occasion for each of us and particularly for our mum Leonie who never misses a match as well as the rest of the family.

“But we must approach the game in the right manner. Management has told us to focus on ourselves. They will look after how we set up tactically and all the other logistical planning.

“That has worked for us so far. There is no reason it can’t work again in Croke Park.”

It has been an incredible journey for the Down team in such a short time-frame.

“Others will want to know the key to their success.

Maybe there is a subject there for another Psychology Research student.

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Hurling and camogie

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