By Daragh Ó Conchúir, at Croke Park
A fantastic goal from Sabina Rabbitte mid-way through the second half, allied with a personal contribution of a goal and eight points from Carrie Dolan and a dour defensive display, all added up to Galway retaining their Very Camogie League Division 1A title at the expense of an equally driven but less economic Cork.
It is a seventh title in total for Galway but a third in five seasons as Cathal Murray has constantly utilised the Spring to build competition for places, the result of which has been the westerners’ most fruitful period ever, with two All-Irelands also in the bank in his tenure.
That this victory came with so many new faces and the likes of Niamh Kilkenny, Sarah Dervan, Siobhán McGrath, Orlaith McGrath, Sarah Healy and the retired Heather Cooney unavailable, to name just six, marks them out as the team to beat in the All-Ireland Championship, with at least some of those slated to return.
They had to inflict a first defeat of the group stages on Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh to book their place in the final and even that would not have been enough had Tipperary beaten Kilkenny, instead losing by a point.
Cork will be one of those with something to say about the destination of the O’Duffy Cup and have not been without their injury problems themselves, the likes of Katrina Mackey and Ashling Thompson among the considerably significant absentees but they have to be stung by what is a fourth consecutive loss in a national final.
And while it was a game they could have won, they can’t really have too many complaints, wasting a host of chances in the second half, whereas their opponents had the radar tuned in, only hitting their first wide of the latter period in injury time.
It was no surprise that there would be so little between the teams, and if there were periods for each in the ascendancy, they were never too pronounced and certainly didn’t last long.
Cork had the last of the first half, registering four points in a row to turn a two-point deficit into a two-point interval lead, 1-8 to 1-6.
They had started perfectly too with an Orlaith Cahalane goal in the third minute. The latest scion of the famed Gaelic games family had already made one dangerous run before finishing another with a solid strike off the sod, after being hooked excellently initially.
Last year’s minor star and sister of experienced defender Méabh followed up with a point, after the inspirational Dolan had gotten Galway off the mark with a fine score.
The game settled thereafter, Dolan hitting two of the next three points as Murray’s side established a foothold.
They were boosted significantly further by an 11th minute goal from Dolan. The Clarinbridge sharpshooter has been a real leader as a relatively inexperienced western unit progressed through the group stages and she reacted quickest to the rebound after Amy Lee saved from Niamh McPeake. Her ground shot barely trickled over the line but the Cork cover was drawn to the sliotar and no one moved back to stand on the line, to deleterious consequences.
Aoife Donohue illustrated her adroit movement and stickwork with two delightful points, either side of Amy O’Connor’s first score, from a free, and it was 1-6 to 1-4 but Laura Hayes powered up the left flank to drive over an outstanding point on the run from the next play, matching an earlier effort from midfield colleague Saoirse McCarthy.
Three more points from frees, by McCartan and O’Connor (two), edged the Rebels ahead at the change of ends.
The second half never really seemed to get going, with both teams cancelling each other out in so many departments and neither getting their favoured running games going.
Of course both defensive units deserve much credit for that, with Libby Coppinger, Méabh Murphy and Laura Treacy prominent for Cork and Shauna Healy, Dervla Higgins and Róisín Black offering stern resistance for Galway.
Cork did have a splendid goal opportunity but were unlucky to see Cahalane’s piledriver hit the post and O’Connor’s shot off the turf lack crispness but was stopped well nonetheless by Fiona Ryan.
Instead, it was Galway that found the net via a sensational finish by Sabina Rabbitte, like the Cahalanes, of blue-chip stock. The young Athenry forward placed the sliotar over the advancing Amy Lee in remarkably composed fashion, after being put through by Ailish O’Reilly in the 46th minute.
That moved them two points in front and with Cork’s attack largely shut down from general play and reliant for the most part on O’Connor converting placed balls, they were able to keep their noses in front.
Dolan was unerring from frees herself, of course, but Donohue chipped in with her third also, hard work by the Galway attack forcing a turnover from which the diminutive Mullagh marvel swooped.
A goal separated the sides when O’Connor managed to break the lines with a searing run in the 59th minute. Her pass to Sorcha McCartan had to spend a little longer in the air than was ideal to clear the cover she had drawn, allowing a retreating mob in maroon to hold the former Down star up, after she had briefly been unattended with only Ryan between the posts in front of her.
When she finally got her shot away, it was blocked and cleared and instead, Áine Keane drove over a beautiful soaring score to set the seal on a special day for Galway.
SCORERS FOR GALWAY: C Dolan 1-8(0-7fs); S Rabbitte 1-1; A Donohue 0-3; A Keane 0-1
SCORERS FOR CORK: A O’Connor 0-5(fs); O Cahalane 1-1; S McCartan 0-2(fs); S McCarthy, L Hayes, F Keating, C Sigerson 0-1 each
GALWAY: F Ryan, S Healy, R Black, D Higgins, S Gardiner, E Helebert, R Hanniffy, N Hanniffy, C Hickey, S Rabbitte, C Dolan, A Keane, N McPeake, A Donohue, A O’Reilly. Subs: S Corcoran for McPeake (41), K A Porter for O’Reilly (60+3), J Hughes for Rabbitte (60+4)
CORK: A Lee, M Murphy, L Coppinger, M Cahalane, P Mackey, L Treacy, I O’Regan, S McCarthy, L Hayes, C Sigerson, F Keating, C Healy, A O’Connor, S McCartan, O Cahalane. Subs: E Murphy for Sigerson (44), O Cronin for Healy (46), A Healy for O’Regan (48), L Hayes for Cahalane (50)
REFEREE: Justin Heffernan (Wexford)