By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Ciara O’Connor was finding it hard to make sense of it all, after putting the exclamation mark to a thrilling Wexford fightback as well as a magnificent personal nine-point contribution with a brilliant injury-time score securing a 1-17 to 3-11 draw for the visitors against All-Ireland champions Kilkenny in the first round of the Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship (Group 2) on Saturday.
The point came after O’Connor’s sister and former All-Star, won a do-or-die possession, lost her hurley in the process and so kicked expertly in the direction of her sibling, who showed good strength to gather before driving forward and sending over that soaring equaliser on the run.
That arrived as the clock moved into the seventh minute of additional time and six minutes after early second-half sub, Áine Lacey had astonishingly flicked an airborne sliotar from a seemingly impossible position with her back to the goal and outside the left post to the far corner of the net for what will take some beating for goal of the year.
Kilkenny were shellshocked and conceded the last goal and four points of the game. Denise Gaule, Katie Power and Katie Nolan (who was the Stripeywomen’s top scorer with six points) had put them in a decent position when pointing in response to Shelley Kehoe’s early goal for Wexford and Ciara O’Connor’s outstanding two-point sideline.
Julianne Malone goaled 40 seconds into the second half and Brian Dowling’s side looked to be coasting as points from Aoife Doyle, her sister Kellyann and Gaule put them ten clear, but a Linda Bolger goal breathed life into Wexford and given their dominance in the final quarter, a share of the spoils was deserved.
“I don’t even know where to start,” said Ciara O’Connor, who was named player of the match in her first outing after a six-week absence with a knee injury.
“I suppose Kilkenny, coming up to their back garden was always going to be a tough game. Given the history that team has had over the last few years as well, it was always gonna be a battle. But we knew it was like any game, any opposition, you focus on your own game plan and believe in our players and believe in our backroom team and that’s what we did.
“Wexford camogie hasn’t really been there or thereabouts. It’s been development so far and this is a step in the right direction.”
Such is the rarity of sideline scores in camogie, that there was some confusion about the umpire’s signal for a two-point score.
“I thought he was waving it wide so I kinda went a bit ballistic but the ref informed me it was the two points,” said a laughing O’Connor. “I suppose when you’re practising it you hope it will come up in game time and you get to show what you can do and thankfully it went over.”
Dowling gave credit to Wexford but was unhappy with his players’ fadeout.
“We’re very disappointed,” the Kilkenny manager admitted. “I think we went ten up at one stage and looked like we were in complete control. We totally took our foot off the gas and in fairness to Wexford they kept plugging away. We knew coming in they were a very good team and the girls were focussed on it but I don’t know what happened there in the last 15 minutes, very disappointing on our part.
“We’ve a lot of things to work on. You can’t be conceding three goals for a start. We scored 1-17, which isn’t a bad score and we had a couple of more chances that went away. It was very frustrating there in the last 15 minutes. We had a lot of space inside and we didn’t hit the ball in. The girls were winning it inside. We needed to be more direct and we weren’t.
“Wexford probably shut us down in the half-back line, midfield area. I thought they got on top there in the last 15 minutes and they won most of the rucks, which was very disappointing.”
The Cats now travel to Dublin the weekend after next for a repeat of the Leinster final, in which they were put to the pin of their collars to chisel out a four-point victory.
“Every match we have now is tough. When you go in as All-Ireland champions, every team you play raises their game. Wexford did it today, Dublin did it in the Leinster final against us already. We have to go up there now and it’s going to be a huge battle. I said to the girls, it’s in their own hands. We just have to make sure we get the result against Dublin or we’re going to be in serious trouble.”
Wexford boss, Colin Sunderland was understandably delighted, though he emphasised the importance of the upcoming encounters, starting with another crunch clash, at home to Tipperary, who were convincing 2-19 to 1-6 winners over the Dubs at The Ragg.
“I thought the first half was a little bit scrappy from our own point of view,” Sunderland noted. “Belief is a big thing in these girls. Just getting the belief going that they’re up there at this level.
“We referenced it at half-time. ‘Does anybody feel out of their depth here, that shouldn’t be here?’ Because it hasn’t been going great the last few years. We were off the charts altogether a few years ago at the bottom. In fairness, the last few years (under Kevin Tattan) they built back up.
“I thought five or six minutes into the second half, we’d undone all our good work in the first half. But it’s funny, one thing we’ve referenced over the last few weeks is the Leinster hurling championship, Munster hurling championship, Wexford (hurlers against Westmeath and Kilkenny), ten points is nothing anymore. If you’re ten points up or down, keep going to the end because it’s always there.
“But it’s important to remember we didn’t win the game, it’s still only a draw so we still need a couple of wins.
“It’s a definite boost but the one thing we commented on last Thursday night after our last training session is we’re back in on Tuesday night and whether we’re coming off a high or we’re coming off a low, we have to refocus. There’s no breaks here, we’re straight back into and will hopefully switch on and unless we can go and give a performance against Tipperary, today is worth nothing.”
Cáit Devane scored a goal in either half as she built up a tally of 2-6, while Eimear McGrath contributed five points as Tipperary continued the form they showed in winning the Munster Championship with a surprisingly comfortable triumph over a Dublin team that had fallen just short against Kilkenny in the Leinster decider.
It was all over at half-time, as Tipp led 1-12 to 0-2 and to make matters worse for Dublin, substitute Issy Davis, only recently returned from a long-term knee injury, had to leave the fray nine minutes after her introduction after receiving lengthy treatment to the same knee.
Gerry McQuaid’s side rallied briefly and Aisling Maher and Ashling O’Neill hit some nice points but though the excellent Maher rifled to the net late on, there was still time for Devane to grab her second major for Denis Kelly’s strong looking unit.
“It was a tough battle,” Tipp goalie, Caoimhe Bourke declared. “It’s always hard playing Dublin. It was a bit free-flowing in the first half and we had the wind. They got on top of us in the second half, so we’re disappointed a bit with the second half, the first 15 minutes, but we pushed on again to finish out, and got a nice few subs on as well and game time into everyone. So a good start and a good win and plenty to work on.
“Only having to play three matches, it could be a very short year so to get a win was great. It was brilliant to win the Munster but it was no good really if we weren’t setting the standards higher again. And that was shown in training. It pushed on even higher to try reach new levels and try reach where we have not got, for most of the players. (Only Mary Ryan, who came on as a sub against Dublin, has played in an All-Ireland final in 2006).”