2023 Camogie Review of the Year: Antrim lead the way in 2022 but Ulster counties all have reason for optimism in 2023

Antrim's Roisin McCormick tries to get away from Muireann Creamer of Limerick during the All-Ireland Senior Championship match at Corrigan Park Picture: Sean Paul McKillop
Séamas McAleenan

ALMOST all the Ulster counties playing at inter-county level could be happy with their lot after the All-Ireland finals in August brought the curtain down and moved the camogie focus on to the club season.

ANTRIM are the Ulster county in the healthiest position, winners through the age grades at provincial level and now building a senior team to compete for the O'Duffy Cup – despite 2021 Player of the Year Maeve Kelly missing the full season through injury.

They also lost a couple of others from the winning intermediate team last year. Gaps were probably exposed a little when they met Wexford in April in Croke Park for the Division Two National League title.

The concession of three goals in the first half meant that a spirited second half ultimately came up short. Maybe another season in Division Two will help the Saffron management bring through a few more players, girls that need game time before being pitched into senior championship action when the weather improves.

Comfortably ending Down's run in the Ulster Senior championship was a step forward, while doing enough to remain in the All-Ireland Senior Championship would have been high on their plan for the year.

I know, however, that when they saw the group they were drawn in for the championship, they would have aspired to reach the quarter-finals. Ultimately that came down to losing the final game against Limerick in Corrigan Park, a game they were ahead in, but handed the initiative to the visitors. An opportunity missed to gain experience of the knock-out series.

Nevertheless a lot of positives for their top team and then what about the junior squad?

A new team with the main aim of introducing players to inter-county adult camogie in preparation for use with the senior panel. Cassie McArthur and her cousin Katie Laverty both made that transition mid-season.

Being competitive in every game through their Division Three league campaign was impressive. Reaching an Ulster Intermediate final which they lost to Armagh was also praise-worthy. However, everything was surpassed by their All-Ireland run.

Beaten again by Armagh in the group stages, they came through the other games with ease to face Clare in an epic semi-final that went to a second session of extra time before a huge free from Megan McGarry provided the Saffrons with a ticket to Croke Park.

That semi-final was also invaluable in bringing out the qualities they needed to beat Armagh at the fourth attempt. A brilliant performance all around the pitch with special focus on goalie Áine Graham, who brought off some brilliant saves, and corner-forward Dervla Cosgrove with four goals and three points. Three of those goals inside 84 first half seconds will live long in the memory.

DOWN won nothing in 2022 – yet they will be pleased enough with how the season went as they retained their place in both Division One and the All-Ireland senior championship.

Neither Paula O'Hagan nor Sara Louise Graffin were available during the league that came down to the Offaly game at Liatroim. O'Hagan returned to action in late spring and impacted on the team's performance during the rest of the year.

The Offaly game was also key to championship survival while a draw with Antrim in an earlier championship game served notice that the Ulster final loss to their neighbours was a blip.

However, the county is still depending too much on their established players – O'Hagan, Graffin, Dearbhla Magee, Aimee McAleenan – they are not producing enough at underage level, Ciara Fitzsimons the one positive from the minors this year.

DERRY were five minutes from Croke Park in the middle of July with a three-points lead over Cork in the All-Ireland intermediate semi-final. The concession of late frees left their All-Ireland dreams on hold for another season at least.

Despite having to work through the early season without Slaughtneil and Eoghan Rua players who were club-tied, Martin Coulter and Danny McGrellis built a decent team for a championship run.

The foundations are now in place for new manager PJ O'Mullan to take them forward and, with competitive underage teams and the schools also doing well, there is every chance that they will get to Croke Park in the immediate future.

IRONICALLY the county feeling most disappointed actually won a provincial title and appeared in Croke Park on All-Ireland finals day. Normally that is enough to sate any county's appetite. But not Armagh's.

They won the 2020 All-Ireland Junior title, but were beaten in the Ulster Intermediate final that year; they decided to remain at junior level and rebuild. They won back the provincial intermediate title last year and retained it in May with a comfortable enough win over Antrim in Edendork.

But successive losses to Wexford and then Antrim in All-Ireland Junior finals leaves them a little frustrated.

This year star forward Ciara Donnelly didn't carry them to Croke Park; others took up the slack. Worryingly those others were even older than the Eglish striker. Michelle McArdle and Jenny Curry were probably their stand-out performers in 2022.

However a number of underage players have made a lot of progress in 2022, none more impressive than Sinéad Quinn. Still a student in St Patrick's Keady, the Derrynoose forward was Player of the Match in her first start for the team, the All-Ireland semi-final.

CAVAN'S rise continues. An unbeaten run to the Division Three title was the high-point of their season. Clodagh Keenaghan's frees and goals from Shanise Fitzsimons brought that success.

Opponents then closed out Fitzsimons and cut down on conceding frees. Cavan struggled in key games after that.

They lost to Antrim in the Ulster Intermediate semi-final, but had some good performances in the group stages of the championship. Losing the last game to Clare meant a difficult semi-final with Armagh.

Close enough for the Breffni Blues then and a platform for further progress next year.

TYRONE left it late in the final, but managed to do enough to claim the Nancy Murray Cup with Reagan Fay the star.

The problem with the O'Neill county is that, while there is plenty of young talent about such as Fay, a few of her club-mates from Eglish and Edendork's Lára Devlin, the structures to bring these through to adult inter-county level could be improved.

Cavan have shown over the last few years how a sound inter-county team can be developed from a low base. Tyrone could do worse than follow their pattern.

At under-age level, it was all about Antrim.

The success of their school teams, however, impacted on the minors who played in the top grade after taking the 2021 B championship. Two school teams played All-Ireland semi-finals in Munster on the first Saturday of February and then the next day the same players had to travel to Wexford to play in the opening game of the minor championship. That was just plane crazy programming.

At least the minors were competitive in their group, without winning a game, and they brought that into the provincial championship that they won easily.

At U16 level it was a similar story, a provincial title and narrow loss in the All-Ireland B final.

Only Derry look to have the capacity to challenge that under-age dominance.

FOR Ulster counties the cup is definitely more than half-full. Before Down's appearance in the 2018 All-Ireland Intermediate final, county camogie in the province was at a low ebb. League and championship wins for Down combined with club successes in Croke Park finals have ushered in a new era for the game in the province.

Appearances and success on All-Ireland finals' Day are now expected. The rising tide seems to have raised all boats. Long may it last.