BY NIALL SHERRY
ALL PIX DANNY LAHART
It has been a very strange eighteen months across the world, mostly related to the ‘P’ word.
Yes, the pandemic, COVID-19 has cost all of us so much. During these dark times, the GAA has somehow managed to lift our spirits, and through our Hurling, Camogie and Football we have had a glimpse of what normality was like.
Games without supporters was not something that we could ever have imagined, but our players ensured that we had something to cling to. As restrictions eased, we started to see fans returning to our grounds, and this had an energising effect on games.
The season began with our senior camogs as All-Ireland champions and our senior hurlers with lofty ambitions of getting their hands on Liam again.
The leagues would be the training ground for their assaults on O’Duffy & McCarthy.
Brian Dowling’s ladies’ team went through their Littlewoods league campaign with relative ease, but never quite managed a complete 60-minute performance as they marched to the final showdown in Croker against old foes Galway. For me, the 2-8 registered by Denise Gaule in the semi-final victory over Tipperary at UPMC Nowlan Park, was key to the stripey-women reaching the decider. Goalkeeper Aoife Norris was also impressive in their run to the final, along with her clubmates, Aoife and Kellyann Doyle.
It was fitting that our national broadcaster had decided to televise the league decider live from Croker.
With this match also acting as a ‘test event’ for the re-introduction of spectators, following the easing of COVID restrictions, 3,000 lucky Gaels were in attendance and witnessed an unbelievable advert for the women’ game.
‘Keeper Aoife Norris was outstanding, pulling off a string of fine saves. Denise Gaule, supported by others kept the scoreboard ticking over, but Aoife Doyle’s second half goal was a thing of beauty. The speed, the control, but most importantly the finish – BOOM! A blistering start to the 2nd half saw our ladies turn a three-point deficit into a five-point advantage. They weren’t to be beaten and had three points to spare on the long whistle. Winning is a good habit and this team were showing all the traits necessary of champions.
The ladies first taste of championship action came against the women of Clare. As expected, Dowling’s charges saw off the challenge of Ger O’Connell’s side, and then found themselves on the road to Mullingar to face Westmeath. This game would lead bainisteoir Dowling to call it the worst performance during his time in charge – but importantly, his side ran out 9-point winners, despite trailing by four at the short whistle. Along with Denise Gaule, it would be St Martin’s sharp shooter, Katie Nolan that was carrying the major threat to opposition defenders.
The Final group game saw the Tribeswomen of Galway rock up to Callan. Games between these two are notoriously tight, and this encounter proved no different. Despite having a numerical advantage for the majority of the match, our ladies came up just short by the minimum on the long whistle. The westerners topped the group, and Dowling’s side would have to navigate a tricky quarter-final trip to Pairc Ui Chaoimh to face-off against neighbours Wexford. A super first half from those in black and amber gave the ladies a platform to rack up a decent winning total of 3-19 and see them over the line by the banks of the Lee.
A little trip to headquarters was next up, and the small matter of an All-Ireland semi-final against the Rebels of Cork. Despite a second-half comeback, Brian Dowling’s side fell to a late point from Cork captain Linda Collins.
While many had earmarked Kilkenny as favourites for the semi-final tie at headquarters, the rebels desire to reach their first final in three years was evident.
It was a rip-roaring affair, that could have gone either way, but over the course of the near 65 minutes, Cork probably just about deserved their victory.
At Intermediate level, John Scott’s side navigated their way to an All-Ireland final, where there came up just short against a slick Antrim side. There was much to admire about our intermediate ladies’ efforts over the season, Sophie O’Dwyer, along with Danielle Quigley, Eva Hynes and Ciara O’Keefe all showed up well, and more will be expected in 2022.
The brightest spark in 2021 was undoubtably Mike Wall’s minor ladies. A fantastic campaign saw his charges claim their first minor crown since 2015 – and guess who was in charge then? Yes, you guessed it – Mr. Mike Wall!
The campaign began with an entertaining draw against Waterford, before the minor ladies upped the ante in Thomastown in a 6-point win over Wexford. The Model victory set-up an All-Ireland quarter-final tie with Limerick in Fermoy. The ease with which our minor’s dismantled the opposition sent warning signs to all other remaining competitors. Amy Clifford hit 1-14 as Mike Wall’s team romped to a 19-point victory. Next up was a semi-final meeting with Galway in Abbottstown. This game would test the nerves of all involved. The tie ebbed and flowed and had a little bit of everything, but it would take a goal of real quality from rising star Sarah Barcoe to force extra-time. Thomastown attacker Barcoe would register further scores and finish with a tally of 2-5 to help see her side home by 2 points.
LIT Gaelic Grounds in Limerick would be the venue for the final showpiece against the minor ladies of Cork. We started well, had a 4-point lead at the short whistle. Cork battled hard, but a second green flag raised by Emma Shortall in the 52nd minute ensured there would be no nail-biting finish to this game. Mike Wall had delivered what he set out to, another Síghle Nic an Ultaigh Cup for the Noresiders.
Sarah Barcoe. Wow. What a talent. The scintillating Thomastown attacker, I believe, has the camogie world at her feet. Dicksboro duo Asha McHardy and Amy Clifford excelled also, the latter deadly accurate from play and vitally, the placed ball. In many ways she reminds me of a young Denise Gaule. Throw Clara’s Emma Shortall into the mix, and it’s a potent forward line. In defence, there was great discipline shown throughout the campaign. Niamh Phelan and Aine Kirwan just two of the stand-outs here. James Stephens clubwoman Emma Manogue found her way to midfield and put in stellar performances. The bench was crucial to the successful season, with St Brigids Claire Doheny impressing when called upon. The future’s bright – the future is black and amber.
About a boy……
Kilkenny senior hurlers had a largely successful league campaign, topping Division 1B. As no league final was scheduled in this season’s calendar, the title was shared between both Galway and the Cats.
The league saw captain Adrian Mullen return to action and allowed Brian Cody to shuffle his pack game to game. It became clear early on in the league campaign that Glenmore’s Eoin Murphy was a keeper of the highest quality. Murphy would go on to have a great season, and this was duly recognised with an All-Star award in the number one position.
Victories over Dublin, Antrim, Laois and Wexford would come before a final league game against Clare. Perhaps it was the trip to Ennis that helped put some perspective on the shape Brian Cody’s team were in. Clare racked up 4-20 in their home win, as doubts surrounding the Kilkenny defence resurfaced. The Banners win continued their winning streak against the Nore-siders – making it six games without a loss.
It was TJ, yet again who finished top of the league scoring charts for Kilkenny – hitting 1-34 across the campaign and making him the only black and amber player in the ‘Top Ten’ Scorer’s list. The reliance on the Ballyhale legend continues.
As we all know, the league’s for playing. It’s the championship that gets the Gael’s going. As Leinster got under way, Cody’s panel watched with interest as their semi-final opponents were confirmed. As expected, Davy Fitz & co prevailed against Laois in Nowlan Park, setting up what was to be his final dig at the cats with the yellowbellies.
In arguably the greatest game of Hurling this year so far, the lads took fans on one hell of a rollercoaster. In front of 8,000 fans at headquarters, both sides provided a fantastic spectacle. In a game that ebbed and flowed for its entirety, Wexford somehow managed to force extra-time by hitting three late scores. The Kilkenny faithful feared the worst when keeper Eoin Murphy was sent to the ‘bin’ for a foul. Wexford scored the penalty and the cats trailed by the minimum at the interval in extra-time. Our boys would go to the well again and finish the game strongly, hitting 1-6 without reply in the second period, including a lovely goal from Walter which saw them claim a final berth against the Dubs.
The Leinster decider was never going to live up to the semi-final spectacle, the home side lost some players to COVID-19 in the build-up, and despite their best efforts, Kilkenny claimed a 73rd O’Keefe cup in front of 18,000 Gaels. Leinster was done. Cody knew a bigger, stronger challenge lay ahead, if the cats were to end the wait for Liam.
Kilkenny continued their preparations in their quest for the ultimate prize. Once Cork overcame Dublin in the quarter-final, Cody could focus on what was to prove to be the last match of the season.
Another extra-time affair. Another visit to the well. Ultimately the well ran dry in the final ten minutes of the semi-final battle. Cork’s pace and running game won the day. Semi-final defeat and heartache for our boys. Our leader and legend, Brian Cody admitted the better team won on the day. As usual Kilkenny went down fighting. They will return hungrier than ever when 2022 season gets under way.
Eoin Cody, named young hurler of the year for the second season running, will no doubt be brimming with confidence for the next campaign. His clubmates, Joe Cuddihy, Ronan Corcoran and Dean Mason could also find themselves seeing some inter-county action in 2022.
Other names in the mix include, Eoin Wall, Luke Scanlon and Cian Kenny.
From the juvenile ranks, we should keep a close eye on the Dicksboro lads – there are a few tasty talents plying their trade in Palmerstown. Harry Shine, Liam Moore, Timmy Clifford and Cillian Hackett to name but four. Thomastown minor captain, Peter McDonald looks like a leader and a real gem.
The club championship has shown Brian Cody that there is plenty of talent around the county. It will be up to our legendary leader to integrate some of this talent into his senior inter-county panel in the pre-season competition and national league.
2022 – Bring it on!