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Slaughtneil face familiar foe in bid to return to All-Ireland senior final

Slaughtneil face Sarsfield's for a fourth All-Ireland championship clash in five years with a place in the final at stake
Paul McConville

AIB All-Ireland Senior Club semi-finals: Slaughtneil (Derry) v Sarsfield’s (Galway) (tomorrow, Kingspan Breffni, 2pm)

THREE of the four provincial champions who contested the 2020 All-Ireland senior club semi-finals before Christmas have retained their provincial crown and take part in this weekend’s 2021 version of the All-Ireland championship.

It is fair to say that both Sarsfield’s and Slaughtneil who contested the 2019 All-Ireland final in Croke Park were widely tipped to repeat that showdown in Nowlan Park. Both were upstaged by Oulart-the Ballagh, the Wexford club hitting each of them with body blows early in the first half from which they never recovered.

While both Slaughtneil and Sarsfield’s will want to reach the final again, there remains unfinished business between themselves and that should make for a very interesting meeting in Kingspan Breffni.

They have met three times in this championship, the first two of those were in finals when the Derry side claimed back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. Sarsfield’s were surprisingly beaten in Galway later in 2018 and Slaughtneil completed their three-in-a-row with a victory over St Martin’s of Wexford.

They met again then in the 2019 final, when Sarsfield’s handed out the first championship defeat the Emmett’s had suffered since the 2014 Ulster final. Their goal from Siobhán McGrath in a 1-8 to 0-10 victory came in injury time.

Although Slaughtneil pulled a point back they were denied an equaliser by the referee when Tina Bradley was clearly taken down 25 metres from goal in the last play of the game.

The teams that face each other in Cavan will be broadly speaking the same as lined out in Croke Park two years ago although forward Siobhán Bradley is now the Slaughtneil manager and Gráinne Ní Chatháin is a long term injury. There has been a shuffle in the team as well with Louise Dougan now at full-back instead of sweeper and Aoife Ní Chaiside nominally a forward.

The big plus for Slaughtneil has been the emergence of Clíodhna Ní Mhianáin as a key player for them and the further development of other younger players.

Their team play is very much founded on their defensive formation and, after having wrestled with Loughgiel over two games before Christmas, it was a bit of a surprise that Oulart opened them up fairly regularly early in the semi-final in Ashbourne. After that Slaughtneil had to play on Oulart’s terms and that was not familiar territory for the Ulster champions.

When they defeated Loughgiel once again in the Ulster final last month to take a sixth successive provincial title, players and management were already looking ahead to this game as if there was something to prove.

Of course Sarsfield’s are also hurting from Oulart’s surprise All-Ireland final win over them. They have not had a competitive game since, as the Galway championship was completed around Halloween and they automatically move into the All-Ireland semi-final.

Like Slaughtneil their defence was breached early and they had to chase the game. The four McGrath sisters did their best, scoring 1-9 between them. But it wasn’t enough.

The Galway’s side’s strength is their attack although a defender constantly pressed Louise Dougan as sweeper in Croke Park and that curtailed the impact she had in that role. It will be interesting to see how they set up now that Dougan is at full-back.

The other semi-final is a Sunday game (1.30pm in Clonmel) and Oulart-the Ballagh will be expected to come through against Scariff-Ogonnolloe even though the Clare side performed very well in the Munster decider to take their second title.

Nationally the expectation is that we will have a repeat of the 2020 final as Slaughtneil are seen as a team on the way down. Oulart were seen in a similar light before Christmas and the Wexford side proved the pundits wrong. Perhaps Slaughtneil can do the same.

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