Review of the year: Antrim and Down continue to set the standards for camogie in Ulster
SAFFRON celebrations in Croke Park and Mulligar or Down’s senior success.
Take your pick in a year that saw Ulster inter-county camogie soar to a dizzy height that it hasn’t been at in more than four decades.
This time last year, we were celebrating Down and Armagh winning All-Ireland titles in a day of double-glory in Kingspan Breffni Park.
Because of a curtailed championship, that intermediate title that Down won did not guarantee them entry into the senior championship for 2021. The Down board fought the decision and gained entry into the senior championship for the first time this millennium although, there was a caveat that one team would be relegated at the end of the season.
They were drawn in a group containing Waterford, Cork and Dublin and played them in that order.
Down failed to win any of the games, although they should have beaten both Waterford and Dublin.
However they entered the relegation play-offs with the lowest score-difference of any of the bottom teams and eventually survived by easily beating Westmeath to retain senior championship status.
Niamh Mallon was the star of the five games in the senior championship and deserving of an Allstar nomination after posting 1-44.
The Portaferry forward should be a shoo-in for the actual Allstar award.
There should also have been a nomination for Dearbhla Magee in defence or in midfield where she deputised for Paula O’Hagan.
Kilkenny took the Division One league title, but came unstuck in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork. The Galway v Cork final was a real spectacle, refereed to the spirit of the new rules and Galway took their fourth title in style.
All-Ireland champions as recently as 2012, Wexford opted to rebuild this year and therefore contest Division Two.
When Down lost their opening game to Antrim in Portglenone, they had to take the scenic route through the knock-out stages and that meant a quarter-final win over Cork’s second team and then Wexford in the semi-final.
The Slaneysiders started off like a whirlwind and led 1-6 to 0-2 after 13 minutes, but Down took over and eventually won by 0-18 to 2-10 in one of the great team performances of the year.
In the other side of the draw Antrim topped their group and, despite injuries, beat a strong Galway second team in the quarter-final on the way to the Division Two final against a familiar foe.
For long periods in Owenbeg, Down were the team in command with Sorcha McCartan hitting 1-4 in the opening half.
However as the second half progressed Róisín McCormick drew Antrim back into the game and her goal levelled it going into the last five minutes.
Down refused to panic. The experienced Karen McMullan and Sara Louise Graffin engineered an opening and Anna Rogan grabbed the winning goal.
Down also dominated the Ulster senior final between the pair. But Antrim reeled them in and drew level with the game entering injury-time.
Again Graffin rescued the game for the Mourne county.
So Antrim entered the All-Ireland intermediate championship with just three defeats over the previous18 months and all of those in finals against Down. And each time they were getting closer to beating their neighbours.
An outbreak of Covid cases plagued the Saffrons’ opening group game against Kilkenny in Dunloy.
Whether by design or necessity, local teenager Áine Magill started for the Saffrons and hit two points in each half. She retained her place for the rest of the season, scoring in every game and was very much the find of the championship.
Antrim made life a little harder for themselves by losing to Cork in their next group game, but they recovered their composure and comfortable wins over Kildare and Kerry brought them into a semi-final in Clones against a Galway side many fancied to take the title.
Antrim hit the ground running with early goals from McCormick and Magill, the latter registering 1-4 in the first 35 minutes.
An injury-time goal drew Galway to within three points for a nervous couple of minutes until Antrim’s ticket to Croke Park was confirmed.
In contrast to the semi-final, Antrim were hesitant in the opening 10 minutes of the final. But then they opened up to put the Kilkenny to the sword with McCormick (0-9), Maeve Kelly (1-5) and Caitrín Dobbin (1-2) excelling in the wide open spaces of Croke Park.
It was an emphatic statement from the Saffrons and they followed it up a week later when Áine Magill lorded midfield in a minor team that included her twin sisters Bríd and Brónach as they defeated Offaly to claim a second national title.
That team was captained by Fionnuala Kelly, younger sister of senior Player of the Match Maeve and 11 of the starting 15 are under-age in 2022, emphasising that Antrim has a flow of talent coming through to back up their intermediate winning side.
The only negative side to the Saffron season has been the decision of Paul McKillen and Jim McKernan to step down from the management.
The rest of the management team are keen to remain in situ as the hunt continues to replace the pair who completely changed a county’s fortunes over their 18 months at the helm.
Armagh this time last year were All-Ireland Premier Junior champions.
Although they did not manage to retain the title in 2021, they have not really lost any ground.
New manager Mattie Lennon shook up the panel and they won back the Ulster Junior title with wins over Down, Cavan and Antrim.
However at national level they lost to just one team – Wexford – in league and championship, a lack of fire-power their Achilles’ heel.
Ciara Donnelly remained up front running up the totals – but she lacked support.
Last year that support came from her sister Leanne around the half-forward line.
Lennon's decision to use Leanne at midfield restricted her contribution to the scoreboard particularly in the tight games against Wexford.
Derry looked like making a fist of it at intermediate level when they topped their group, but they fell in the quarter-finals to Meath after key players, Shannon Graham and Louise Dougan, picked up injuries.
Ciarán Cunningham still has a rebuilding job in the county and the presence of the pair in the first place was a good foundation.
The key to success with Down and Antrim over the past two seasons has been the availability of almost all the top players to the management who then could put together a programme and a game-plan to get the best from the team. There is a lot of talent in Derry at the moment. Their motivation to represent the county will decide whether Derry can follow the other two counties to the top.
Cavan built on 2020 by winning Division Four of the league, but, despite closing the gap on the top teams in the Premier Junior championship, they didn’t qualify for the knock-out stages.
Tyrone, like Cavan and Armagh, look to be caught on a plateau. They again reached the Nancy Murray final where they were beaten by Cavan in 2020. This time Mayo took the honours.
Better news for the Red Hands with success for their minors in the All-Ireland C.
They beat Donegal well in that final – but this team was the first from Donegal for many years. Another positive sign perhaps at a different level of camogie’s progress in Ulster.
Antrim’s success at underage level means they will contest the Minor A championship in 2022, but more importantly have good experienced players coming through to the senior team.
Down does not, at the moment, have the same under-age structures and there will therefore be a huge challenge to remain in Division One and the senior championship.
And so 2021 drew to a close with Antrim and Down taking another step up from 2020. The gap between them and the rest of the province widens.