BY NIALL SHERRY
Wexford will pose serious threat to All-Ireland crown
All-Star defender Claire Phelan believes her county are ready to meet the challenge of Wexford, and any other county as Kilkenny continues their quest to retain the O’Duffy cup this weekend in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Speaking to the Kilkenny Observer ahead of the quarter-final clash with the Model County, the Lisdowney clubwoman says the recent group game defeat to Galway has made the panel ‘re-focus’.
“Obviously we’d rather have beaten Galway the last day out, but they played an unbelievable game and outworked us, especially when down to 14 players.” “It was a game that could have gone either way, and towards the end their keeper made a great save, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.” “I had a shot near the end myself, and perhaps it would have been better falling to Denise (Gaule) or Katie (Nolan), but we live to fight another day and, in my mind, the better team won on the day.”
After the defeat in Callan, manager Brian Dowling hinted that training would be taken up a notch or two in preparation for the Wexford game, and Phelan admits the intensity has risen. “Look, all our sessions are pretty intensive, but the lads have cranked things up since the last game and it’s pretty competitive on the field, as all the players battle for a starting place.”
When asked about the upcoming challenge from the Slaneysiders, Phelan is in no doubt about what lies ahead this weekend. “Wexford are a savage outfit; we’ve played them a few times over the last year in challenge games and they are a very physical side with a strong running game, and we know they will keep going right to the end, but listen, it’s more about what we do and our game that’s whats important.”
“We have looked at the last game and know the areas that we have to improve on, firstly we need to match the oppositions hunger and work rate and I know our management team will have a plan for the players in terms of the tactics for the Wexford game.”
On the panel’s fitness and player availability for tomorrow’s game, Claire appeared
happy with the bill of health in the Kilkenny camp. “At this stage of the season you will always have some players with little niggles, but that’s par for the course, we are all raring to get back on the field and hopefully get the win.”
The Primary school teacher’s first experience of playing at Páirc Uí Chaoimh came in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final win over the rebel ladies, and Phelan is looking forward to getting back on the Cork turf. “It’s a fantastic pitch and great stadium, and that’s what it’s all about in championship Camogie, you want to have day’s out like this at the best venues.”
Phelan first joined the senior panel in 2011, and the defender has been something of a permanent fixture in the Cats defence since. Camogie has changed since her debut, and Claire believes it’s all positive. “The game has come a long way, it’s definitely much more physical and faster.” “The whole approach to training, especially the area of strength and conditioning has brought players on immensely, and all the girls take it seriously and know that it’s vital to compete for All-Ireland’s. “When you look back at last year’s final, it was an intense physical battle and we know the hard yards must be put in at training in order to challenge.”
Camogie has started to gain a little more prominence in terms of television and media coverage, and viewing figures show that the interest is certainly there for the sport. In a survey earlier this year, it was revealed that 89% of the population couldn’t name a single camogie player. Phelan is hoping that the increased coverage will change this. “It’s great to meet the young ones at Cul Camps, especially this year when we were able to bring the cup.” “They were lifting the cup pretending to be the players – look at me, I’m Anne Dalton.” You can sense the pride that Phelan feels when she recounts these memories.
Claire says that supporters around her club and in the county are now recognising the players, and are quick to let her know how they have performed. “You will get people now saying that they saw the game on TV and they will let you know if you went well or not!” The engaging Phelan says that she hopes the current panel’s exploits will encourage the youth and being on the next generation of camog’s and hurlers. “I hope they say “well if she can do it, why can’t I?”
On the appetite for further success, Phelan states that the desire remains as strong as ever to win more titles and ensure December’s All-Ireland final victory is just the beginning for the cats. “In previous years, there has always been the hunger, perhaps we just weren’t lucky enough or good enough to get over the line, but I can see in this group that we all drive each other on, especially the younger, newer additions to the panel.” “Like I said before, there’s huge competition for places in the starting fifteen, and all the girls are determined to give everything to get back to another final in Croke Park, and hopefully see Meighan (Farrell) climb the steps to lift the O’Duffy cup.”
As defending All –Ireland champions, Phelan is in no doubt that each opposition team raises their game when they play the cats. “For sure, we would have done the same in previous years, you always want to test yourself against the best, the champions and see where you’re at.” “This year we are in a different position, teams are throwing the kitchen sink at us and pushing us to the wire in every game we play, but that’s the pressure that comes with being All-Ireland champions, and to be fair it’s the position you’d rather be in.”
On the more recent additions to the Kilkenny panel, Phelan is full of admiration and praise for their contributions to the squad in general. “When you look at the likes of Katie (Nolan), Mary (O’Connell) and Michelle (Teehan), it’s like the shackles are off, they play with absolutely no fear, they are buzzing around the place in training, bringing huge energy, which drives the rest of us on in each session or match, because we know that no one’s place is safe in the team.”
When looking back on last year’s magnificent achievement, Phelan speaks glowingly about the ‘split season’ and now believes that this is the format that the camogie calendar should look to implement going forward. “It was really great last year, you got to have the time with the club, before getting stuck in with the county.” “It’s hard to be at the pitch every night of the week, it gets harder to bring the same energy, as we all need some down-time due to our personal lives or our jobs and that, so last season was it was great to get the summer with the club, then onto the winter with the county, and to be honest, I think most of the girls felt the same.”
The Lisdowney club is synonymous with camogie – many legends have represented both club and county, and Phelan is proud to continue that proud tradition. With Lockdown restrictions easing, the news that a large number of supporters will be in attendance going forward, is welcomed be the player, as December’s title win at headquarters was a somewhat different occasion.
“Winning the final last year was a little different in terms of the post-match experience, as we had no family there to celebrate with.” “However, in a strange way it allowed the team to be together and reflect on a fantastic achievement in that unforgettable moment.” Phelan beams with pride and emotion when discussing that night in December. “We all want to get back to Croke Park, and have our families and loved one’s there – they deserve the day out too, they’re the ones that sacrifice so much to help us all reach these moments, getting us to training and matches all over the country, and the atmosphere it adds is incredible, as you saw recently when our hurlers played.”
As our chat draws to a close, I sense that Phelan is focused and determined to help Kilkenny defend their title. “Our thoughts are purely on Wexford and the challenge they’ll bring, if we get over that, we can then look ahead to the next one.”
Next stop, Cork.