Hurling and camogie

Saffrons bring greater momentum to All-Ireland final clash with the Cats

Antrim's Aine Magill gets away from Kilkenny's Tiffany Fitzgerald during the Saffron's win over Kilkenny in their All-Ireland Intermediate Championship opener in Pearse Park, Dunloy. The sides will meet against in Sunday's final at Croke Park Picture: John McIlwaine

All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Championship final: Antrim v Kilkenny (tomorrow, Croke Park, 2pm)

ON THE opening day of the 2021 National League Division Two season, Antrim caused a shock by beating Down in Portglenone with a late goal from Caitrín Dobbin. But their Ulster neighbours got the bit between their teeth and got their revenge by beating the Saffrons in the league decider in Owenbeg.

On the opening day of the championship campaign in Dunloy, Antrim needed a late goal from substitute Katie Carey to beat Kilkenny. As the Saffrons head to Croke Park they will hope that the pattern established in the league does not repeat itself because they now face Kilkenny again in Dublin tomorrow.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Leinster side bounced back to reach the final. Antrim were drawn in a tough group and both teams left themselves a lot to do in the final group game at the start of last month.

Going into that game Cork were top of the group. Antrim needed to beat Kildare by a clear margin of 12 points to guarantee a place in the knock-out stages, while Kilkenny needed to beat Cork. After a jittery first half another goal from Katie Carey right on half-time put Antrim on their way to a 3-16 to 1-7 win, while Kilkenny not only toppled Cork but topped the group.

That meant that they got a straight run into the semi-finals while Antrim had to go the scenic route, beating Kerry in the quarter-final and then facing a very strong Galway side a fortnight ago in Clones.

It brought the best out of the Saffrons, a fine team performance built around two early goals from Róisín McCormick and minor Áine Magill who went on to accumulate 1-4.

An hour earlier Kilkenny beat Meath by 0-13 to 0-9 in a dour game dominated by fouls, yellow cards and the accurate free-taking of Sophie O’Dwyer who ended up with eight of the points.

O’Dwyer was also an impressive presence in the Dunloy game, shooting 1-5, the goal from a penalty. So too was centre-forward and captain Leann Fennelly, Ciara O’Keefe and Sarah Walsh across the half-forward line, Sarah Crowley and Tiffany Fitzgerald in defence and Ciara Phelan in midfield.

By the time it came to the knock-out stages these six players were appearing on the sub bench for the senior team.

However the seniors’ defence of their All-Ireland title came to an abrupt halt in Croke Park a fortnight ago and Cork’s victory over them will probably help Antrim’s cause.

It will mean that there will not be a huge Kilkenny support in the stands adding pressure to the Croke Park newcomers. By the same token, it was probably best to meet Galway in Clones rather than in a final in Croke Park an hour before their seniors would be playing.

Sometimes the circuitous route can be an advantage,

Regardless of the route, Antrim will arrive in Croke Park as favourites to go a step further than last year – and they have every right to be installed as favourites.

They have improved significantly on last year, both in terms of their conditioning and as regards their team-play and consistency, all the elements coming together spectacularly in Clones.

Galway had met them in the league quarter-final and planned accordingly. However they hadn’t reckoned on Áine Magill. The minor was not involved until after the league campaign. She marked her debut against Kilkenny with two points in each half and has been a consistent scorer since, accumulating 1-16 in the five games to date.

Galway were able to curtail the other perceived scoring threats, Róisín McCormick, Maeve Kelly and Caitrín Dobbin, but now a fourth had arrived and it took them until the second half to get to grips with the Dunloy teenager. She has added an extra dimension to the Antrim attack.

At the other end of the pitch is Cáitríona Graham who wasn’t in the panel last year. She has been a constant all year, a good shot-stopper, comfortable coming off her line and good at finding her target with her deliveries.

The defence has also been settled after injuries and Covid robbed Paul McKillen, Jim McKernan and Elaine Dowds of players for key parts of the season.

Even against Kilkenny in the group game, there were three or four players missing due to an outbreak of Covid in the area, while Chloe Drain (broken jaw) and Maeve Connolly (groin strain) were probably forced back into the team before they were fully ready to return.

Now with a more settled team and a stronger bench, as a result of more players getting game time Antrim, look to be coming to the boil at the right time.

Kilkenny certainly pose a threat to their ambitions but Antrim are coming into Croke Park with greater momentum and a strong belief in their capabilities.

Kilkenny were able to frustrate Meath and they picked up six yellow cards in doing so. But the Antrim attack has much more variety and the experience gained last year should bring them a third title and first since 2003 when McKillen’s 1989 All-Ireland hurling final team-mate Dominic McKinley was in charge of the Saffrons and substitute Elaine Dowds came off the bench to score 1-1 in the 2-9 to 0-6 win over Tipperary.

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Hurling and camogie