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Slaughtneil must contend with Leinster champions and punishing schedule in quest to retain All-Ireland title

Slaughtneil Olivia Rafferty with Katie McKillop of Loughgiel during the 2020 Ulster Senior Camogie Club Championship Final replay at Glen Maghera on Saturday, December 4. Slaughtneil have little time to recover as they face Leinster championship Oulart-the-Ballagh in Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final in Ashbourne Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.
Paul McConville

2020 AIB All-Ireland senior club camogie semi-finals: Slaughtneil (Derry) v Oulart-the-Ballagh (Wexford) (tomorrow, Ashbourne, 12pm); Sarsfield's (Galway) v Drum and Inch (Tipperary) (today, Edenderry, 12.30pm)

THERE is simply no recovery time in getting the 2020 AIB All-Ireland club championship played to a conclusion. Both Slaughtneil and their Wexford opponents Oulart-the-Ballagh are back in action for the third weekend in a row.

Of course, had the Ulster final been decided a fortnight ago in Ballymena, Slaughtneil would have had last weekend off. Instead the draw meant a replay on a stamina-sapping Glen, Maghera pitch before the Derry champions could claim their fifth successive provincial crown.

Opponents Oulart-the-Ballagh have been on an unbroken run for a week longer than Slaughtneil as their 2021 county final against Rathnure was played on 20th November. They then beat St Jude's from Dublin a little easier than the final score-line of 2-17 to 2-13 suggests in the 2020 Leinster semi-final. The second St Jude's goal was in injury time and there was generally a gap of six points throughout.

At exactly the same time as Slaughtneil were seeing off the Loughgiel challenge in a replay last Saturday, Oulart were claiming the Leinster club title for the seventh time in 12 years.

Over those dozen years, the team lineout has not changed significantly and nine of the players who claimed the first of the club's two All-Ireland senior titles almost 10 years ago were playing in last week's Leinster final.

Ciara Storey, Mary Leacy, captain Stacey Kehoe, Shelley Kehoe, Siobhán Sinnott, Una Leacy, Ursula Jacob, Louise Sinnott and Aideen Brennan are all vastly experienced players who have represented Wexford in All-Ireland winning senior teams.

After Úna Leacy had produced a terrific display in the Wexford final, St Jude's kept her scoreless. But Shelly Kehoe broke loose with eight points from play and was, by all accounts, un-markable. Then last week the player of the match for the Leinster final was one of the younger players, midfielder Anais Curran.

But Slaughtneil have proven over the years that they have several top-class defenders who can cancel out almost any opponent. Just last Saturday, they tweaked the one-on-one marking jobs from the drawn game and Loughgiel only managed two points from general play and relied on Róisín McCormick frees.

The Derry team, who have contested the last four All-Ireland finals, don't allow games to open up into shoot-outs. They revel in the physical challenges, close the play down, win a lot of dirty ball and then move it to the scoring forwards, Tina Bradley or the inside line of the Mellon cousins and Olivia Rafferty.

In contrast to their opponents Slaughtneil have had a significant turnover of players since they first broke through to this stage in 2016/7. Only seven of their first All-Ireland winning side started in the two games against Loughgiel and a number of the players who have departed held central positions on the team.

As those players left the scene new younger players have come through and this year another couple have come of age. Clíodhna Ní Mhianáin, Brídín McAllister and Olivia Rafferty have all contributed well in the Loughgiel games. Others, like Céat McEldowney, have come through before now and are established senior players.

And then of course there was the unexpected addition of Offaly-native Tina Hannon, this year's joint-captain with the ever reliable Louise Dougan.

The players have changed over the years and so has the game-plan evolved and adapted to cater for those players.

Louise Dougan was a surprise choice for full-back, indeed she was a surprise inclusion at all for the Ulster games as she was injured and did not play in Derry championship in September.

Aoife Ní Chaiside picked up Dougan's role in the county championship, but was more on the front foot by the time the Loughgiel replay came around.

Slaughtneil's strength is in the collective and that is why you cannot tip with confidence an opponent against them. But Oulart are an experienced team coming up against an experienced team. It should be a great game.

The first semi-final takes place this afternoon in Edenderry, both Drum and Inch and Sarsfield's making the short journey to the Offaly venue.

Sarsfield's are the only team to have beaten Slaughtneil since the Ulster final of 2015. That really is a feather in anyone's cap and that is why they should come through this game and be the team to beat in next week's final in Nowlan Park.

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