by Daragh Ó Conchúir
Sarsfields (Galway) v Slaughtneil (Derry)
Croke Park, 3.15pm
DESPITE having accounted for Ballinascreen and Loughgiel Shamrocks to get their hands on county and provincial silverware, Slaughtneil’s defeat of Burgess-Duharra in the AIB All-Ireland Senior Championships Semi-Final went down as a shock for a number of reasons, though they would never have considered it as such themselves.
For starters, their Tipperary opponents had been much too strong for Inniscarra in the Munster Final. This was the same Inniscarra side that ended the campaign of Milford, who weren’t just the defending champions, but had won three of the last four All-Ireland titles.
To add context to the achievement, the Robert Emmett’s club are the first from Ulster to reach the decider since Antrim’s O’Donovan Rossa won in 2008. They are the first Derry outfit to make it this far since Swatragh in 2000 and only the third ever, with Bellaghy having paved the way in 1971.
Should they prevail, they will become the first club from the Oak Leaf County to be added to the roll of honour and there is no reason to believe that such a feat is beyond them, after hitting the ground running in the Semi-Final and then having more than enough all-round strength to hold off the inevitable fightback.
The switch of regular midfielder Louise Dougan to a more defensive role proved a masterstroke. Although her team did concede three goals, Dougan was like a magnet to the sliotar and Ulster Final heroines Mary Kelly, Denise McGuigan and Therese Mallon found the net themselves to ensure a two-point win.
Slaughtneil are captained by Aoife Ní Chaiside, who is joined in the side by sisters Eilís and Bróna, and the memory of their late father Thomas, who was a member of the management team before he passed away four days before the drawn Ulster Final, won’t be far from their minds as they step out onto Croke Park.
It is the McGrath clan that is bulwarking the Sarsfields effort, with Niamh, Orlaith, Clodagh and Siobhán all significant talents and their All-Ireland winning father Michael the manager that has overseen a campaign that is highlighted so far by securing a first county senior title, after a replay against Mullagh.
While their 0-8 to 0-7 Semi-Final win over Thomastown – who had accounted for Oulart-The Ballagh in Leinster – wasn’t a thing of beauty, it will be a source of real comfort that they can emerge from a dogfight of this nature. Niamh McGrath clocked up seven of the Sarsfields points, while Maria Cooney and Clara Donohue made important contributions in general play.
It tells you everything about the competitiveness of Galway Camogie that Sarsfields are the fourth different side to win the county championship in the past four seasons and they will be desperate to improve on the fate of Killimor, Ardrahan and Mullagh, who have all fallen at the last hurdle. The former are the last Galway side to win the All-Ireland in 2011.
The Slaughtneil community are riding the crest of a wave at the moment, having seen the Camogie, hurling and football teams secure a unique Ulster Senior treble before Christmas. The footballers have matched the achievements of the Camógs and will play in the All-Ireland Final on St. Patrick’s Day, whilst the hurlers fell just short of creating a remarkable treble for the Derry club.
It promises to be a wonderful occasion.