Loughgiel's Maeve Connolly out to dethrone Slaughtneil
Ulster Senior Club Camogie Final (Sunday, November 10, Pairc Esler, 1pm): Loughgiel (Antrim) v Slaughtneil (Derry) (holders)
WHEN Loughgiel captain Maeve Connolly was coming through into her club’s senior panel around a decade ago, Rossa had just brought the All-Ireland club title and the Bill and Agnes Carroll Cup to Ulster for the first time. Then the Shamrocks were Rossa’s main rivals for the Antrim title.
A decade on and the same title and Cup has been back in the province and with Slaughtneil for the past three seasons. Once again Loughgiel are seen as the main challengers.
“When I was young I was definitely aware that Rossa had won the All-Ireland, but I never thought too much about it. I was too busy trying to get into the Loughgiel senior team.
“I suppose you have to be a bit older and a little more experienced to really appreciate and respect what Rossa did – and they didn’t do it overnight either. It took them five or six years chipping away until they got over the line.
“As a younger player it may be easier to find the time for camogie with having less ties. When you play in a senior club team you start to realise the sacrifices that some of the team have to make, juggling a job with evenings and weekends away and maybe a young family and they are putting in the same effort as everyone else.
“I have a huge respect for what Rossa did – and Slaughtneil of course as well, although I wouldn’t know many of the Slaughtneil team personally.
“They are the standard that every other club team in Ireland is wanting to match, including ourselves. We have been close enough to them over the past three years without getting over the line. But we know it isn’t a wide gap.”
Both teams have changed over the course of the last five campaigns, even since their last meeting in O’Neill Park, Dungannon just over 12 months ago.
“I think that is the nature of all teams, particularly camogie teams. Circumstances change for players in all teams, some need more time with their work, some need to move away to find work, some want to travel and then with camogie and ladies’ football you have players with young children.
“We are lucky in Loughgiel that we have had so many good under-age teams. The girls who came in this year were back-to-back All-Ireland Division 1 Féile winners in 2014 and 2015 and they have a lot of experience and energy and they have brought something different to the table.”
But the standards in Antrim under-age camogie over the past few years have generally been very high and that was evident in the county’s under-16 and minor teams at All-Ireland level. It has seen other clubs improve as well.
“This year we got good hard games against Dunloy in the semi-final and then against Ballycastle in the county final. Both those clubs have great young players coming through and the standard is getting higher all the time,” claims the technology teacher in Cambridge House, Ballymena.
The county title-race was back in September, but the gap between them and the Ulster final is something that doesn’t bother the central defender too much.
“It is six weeks since we played the county final. Look, it is a privilege to be playing in an Ulster final any year and the gap between games doesn’t bother us at all. We knew this was the time-table and we are happy enough to be still following it.
“Playing at this time of the year is different to summer camogie. Training in the evenings has to be under lights and we don’t have lights on the club pitch. So we have moved training to Cargin and the Dub.
“We would have a good few players living in Belfast during the week, as students or for work, and the Dub with its excellent facilities is handy for them. The rest of us have cars and can get there.
“I already said that we are delighted to have an Ulster final to play and we will do what we have to do to make sure we are as ready as we can be for it.
“It is the same with challenge games too – there is a time commitment heading off to Newry or Dublin at weekends. But you won’t find anyone complaining about that.”
But how does a team prepare to take on the three times All-Ireland champions, concentrate on your own game or try to break the Slaughtneil system that seems to be so successful?
“A bit of both, I suppose. There wouldn’t be much point in breaking up Slaughtneil’s game-plan, if we hadn’t something to offer ourselves. I suppose at the end of the day it’s our game-plan that has to work.
“There hasn’t been a lot between us over the past four finals. I don’t see Sunday being anything different. If we can get a few more breaks than we have been getting and then close them a little more at the back, we can come out on the right side – but it won’t be easy.”