by Daragh Ó Conchúir
These two sides have established themselves as the premier club teams in the land over a sustained period, confirmed by a third meeting in four seasons in the AIB All-Ireland Senior Camogie Club Championship Final.
Sarsfields will be desperate to write a different ending, while Slaughtneil are hoping that the script details a four-in-a-row, something only achieved once before. To join the legendary Wexford outfit Buffer’s Alley, who claimed the honours from 1981-84, would be another considerable feather in the cap of this extraordinary team.
When Slaughtneil annexed their maiden title in 2017 against a Sarsfields unit also chasing a first crown, they were only the second Ulster outfit to do so, following in the footsteps of Antrim pioneers O’Donovan Rossa.
They were, of course, the first Derry club to scale the heights but the level of achievement clearly wasn’t enough for Dominic McKillen and Damien McEldowney’s crew. They have since cemented their status as one of the all-time great units of Camogie.
It is notable that so many of their games over this stunning run have involved remarkable comebacks, tight margins and replays. This season has been no different.
If Sarsfields are well known to the Robert Emmets now, Loughgiel Shamrocks are even more so. The Antrim contingent have been on the brink of getting the better of their old rivals on a few occasions but Slaughtneil have found a way to prevail and it was the same this time around, when they fell 1-3 to 0-0 behind after only seven minutes but still won by four points. This attests to an outstanding sense of belief and confidence.
Another point to note is that they have kept winning despite losing players. Last year, former captain Clare McGrath became a mother. This time around, Eilís and Bróna Ní Chaiside and Faoiltiarna Burke aren’t involved. But McGrath is back while there is a crop of young players coming through like the prodigious Céat McEldowney, playing her third Final despite still being in secondary school. Eilís McGrath and Cliodhna Mulholland were both subs 12 months ago and are now firmly established in the first 15.
Throughout the run to Croke Park, including the three-point defeat of Scariff/Ogonnolloe in the Semi-Final, it is the experienced players that have stood out, from Louise Dougan’s covering and long-distance shooting, Shannon Graham’s all-action performances covering every blade of grass and coming up with major scores, the speed and sharpshooting prowess of former Offaly star Tina Bradley (née Hannon) and the defensive resolution and leadership of Aoife Ní Chaiside. Add to that the graft of Josie McMullan and a considerable spread of goalscorers, and it is clear why they have been top of the tree for so long.
The All-Ireland Club Final hasn’t been a happy experience for Galway teams in general. Since Killimor’s triumph in 2011, the westerners have lost on each occasion that they’ve made the final two, and that included six years in-a-row, from 2013 to 2018.
Killimor appeared in two of those, bookending appearances by Ardrahan and Mullagh, before Sarsfields fell twice to Slaughtneil by two and four points. Last year, Ardrahan supplanted Sars as Galway champions but again, found Slaughtneil just too gritty in the All-Ireland Semi-Final.
Sarsfields regrouped and have made it all the way, emerging from the annual Tribes dogfight at the expense of St. Thomas’ this time in the county decider. Dublin and Leinster representatives St. Vincent’s stood between them and a return to Jones’ Road but they dealt with the threat professionally.
They have managed to get this far without the services of former All-Star defender Tara Kenny, who suffered a cruciate ligament injury the week before Galway’s All-Ireland triumph last September.
They possess a very strong panel however, with recent Ashbourne Cup winner Siobhán McGrath having developed into the primary scoring attacker from play and placed balls, with older sister Niamh an inspirational figure too. Both will be back with Galway this year.
They are, of course, joined by sisters Orlaith and Clodagh, and the team is managed by their father, Michael, a multiple All-Ireland winner with club and county in hurling.
Despite the loss of Kenny, the defence has been notably resolute, the likes of Laura Ward, Kate Gallagher, Joanne Daly and Maria Cooney excelling, while Sarah Spellman was a breakout player with Galway last term.
This is a hard one to call and much may depend on the fitness of Slaughtneil’s effervescent Graham, who was carried off in the 53rd minute of their Semi-Final victory with an ankle injury. The Derry side have a record of dealing with setbacks but Graham’s absence would weaken them substantially and come as a huge boost to Sarsfields.
Perhaps there is an omen in Galway finally getting over the line at intercounty level last term, after a slew of near misses. Given the dreadful record of teams representing the west in the recent past, Sarsfields will be hoping that is the case.
It all adds up to what should be a fabulous spectacle.
AIB All-Ireland Senior & Intermediate Club Championships Finals
Sunday March 1st 2020
Sarsfields (Galway) v Slaughtneil (Derry) @ 3.30pm
Gailltír (Waterford) v St. Rynaghs (Offaly) @ 1.30pm
Under 16s €5/£5
*Note for Students/Senior Citizens – Purchase an Adult ticket and receive €5/£5 refund on the day with sufficient ID