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Prendergast focusing on Kilkenny collective

Sat 06th Jul

Daragh Ó Conchúir


By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Aoife Prendergast has already led Kilkenny to the most famous presentation position in Irish sport to receive the O’Duffy Cup on behalf of her teammates.

That memory of 2022 prompts a smile, as does the thought of following Jenny Clifford up those same Hogan Stand steps the week before Christmas when Dicksboro dethroned Sarsfields as club champions thanks to Prendergast’s nine-point player-of-the-match contribution.

She is a bit away from repeating an All-Ireland quadruple – she has a minor A memento I the locker as well – and a captaincy double, with the Cats still only at the quarter-final stage of the Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Championship, and Dublin standing in their way back at her happy, Croke Park hunting ground today (12.30pm throw-in, live on RTÉ One).

But if it were to happen once more, it would rubberstamp the tall sharpshooter as a leader of substance.

The circumstances would be different to two years ago, however, as she was not a starter then, coming on late in the final against Galway. While she demurs, Prendergast has become a key member of the attack in Peter Cleere’s first year as manager.

She bats away such talk because of her past experiences and cognisance of what being a panel member means.

Another thing the 27-year-old PE teacher at Coláiste Mhuire in Johnstown has little truck for, and which has clearly been spoken about in the camp given Cleere has brought it up before, is any notion of Kilkenny being in transition, just because one of the top forwards of the modern era Denise Gaule, and among the cleverest defenders, Claire Phelan, are no longer involved.

Prendergast, who has inherited the free-taking responsibilities from Gaule and is delivering with aplomb, has huge respect for her former teammates but will always emphasise the collective.

“We do have new players in, new management in but we don’t think that we’re in transition,” says Prendergast. “We’re now competing with everyone else, and we believe that, if we will compete, that we can perform as a team, and we just need to believe in each other.

“We kind of took the League to get game time into players, and get different players used to playing with each other. And the management team took the time just to get to know us. There’s no room for that anymore now though.

“Over the last few years, I’ve looked up to Denise Gaule. I got the opportunity to play with Collette Dormer, play with Claire Phelan, Denis Gaule, all these big players, and you learn so much from them, whether it’s being a leader on the pitch or off the pitch, whether you get the opportunity to be on the starting 15 or not.”

Prendergast’s heroics in the maroon of Dicksboro certainly gave her added belief returning to the county set-up but having taken so long to get her hands on a jersey numbered 15 or lower on a consistent basis, there isn’t a prayer that she would rest on her laurels now as she continues that club form for the Stripeywomen.

“No, I definitely wouldn’t say I was established. I still think we’re fighting for a position, week-in, week-out, to be on the starting 15 or even to come on.

“The win with Dicksboro brought huge confidence to you as a player but there’s huge competition in the Kilkenny camp now at the moment, so you won’t take anything for granted. When you get the opportunity, and you get that jersey, you want to do the best you can, even for the girls that didn’t get the opportunity.

“You never take your starting jersey for granted. And even coming on as a sub, you have to be ready, and you have to play a role. You can’t be too disappointed that you didn’t get on the starting team. You have to just analyse that and see what you can bring to the team, because we need everyone from 1 to 34 and our whole management team.”

Contrary to common perception, they do allow other sports in Kilkenny. Prendergast is talented in a wide variety of pursuits and excelled at swimming and hockey, while playing National League soccer with Wexford Youths.

Camogie holds pride of place, however. Sharing the Croke Park stage with the county’s hurlers, who renew their rivalry with Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final, adds to the feeling of growing equality and profile. It offers a glimpse of what integration might bring too, with supporters and family members not having to choose between the two, something Prendergast brought up in other interviews earlier in the week.

While the occasion is important though, knockout games are about winning and the manner in which Kilkenny had to chisel out a five-point victory over an improving Dublin in the Leinster final (the provincial championships are a separate competition in camogie) means the Noresiders are fully aware of the damage Bill McCormack’s crew could inflict on their aspirations.

“Every time you go out and play Dublin, whether it be in a challenge match, a Leinster match, a Championship match or a League match, they always bring huge physicality to the game. They’ve great players as well, they’re well established now at this stage. They probably haven’t got the credit that they deserve over the last few years, they’re always there thereabouts.

“Oh yeah,” the skipper concludes, exhaling in acknowledgement of the battle that lies ahead. “t’s going to be huge test.”

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