By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Laura Ward knows Croke Park pretty well now. She knows what it’s like to win and lose there, with club and county and returns to HQ on Sunday week, December 17 as captain of the Sarsfields team that attempts to complete an AIB All-Ireland senior club championship three-in-a-row.
As long-serving manager Michael ‘Hopper’ McGrath revealed however, they have first-hand knowledge of the challenge Dicksboro will provide.
Ward is an inspirational figure for the champions and there was considerable concern when she went down injured in the first half but she recovered to provide her trademark calm and assured performance in defence, as Sarsfields saw off their namesakes representing Cork and Munster, by 2-10 to 1-6 in Mallow on Saturday.
“The magic spray did the job and got us through,” joked Ward when speaking to Galway Bay FM after the game. “The girls were brilliant and we needed everyone to get us over the line.
“It’s unreal to be back in another All-Ireland final. The scoreline doesn’t show it but it was an absolute dogfight, up and down the field and we’re just delighted to be back in an All-Ireland.”
It was 0-7 to 0-6 at half-time and all to play for. Siobhán McGrath’s 42nd minute goal opened some daylight for the Galway girls but Kate Fennessy responded two minutes later to give the Leesiders hope.
Clara Donohue put an exclamation mark on an excellent performance with another goal for the westerners and they held out from there.
“Clara has hurled so well for us all year,” said Ward of the player that provided the definitive score. “It was massive and a well-deserved goal for her. It was brilliant for her to get the end result as she sets up so much as well. The forwards worked so hard, there was no easy ball coming down on top of us (in defence). It was brilliant.
“A lot of people say they’re best friends and what not, but we honestly are a group of best friends. We get on so well. We’ve been together all the way up along. And when you’re going out there on the pitch with a group of best friends like that, you don’t want to let them down. You’re going out to try your best. You do it for each other and you keep going.”
That spirit is a key element of the team’s success according to the manager, although he admitted that his charges were far from perfect, perhaps due to a six-week break since the county final.
“There were times in that game it seemed to be going away from us but I think we put in a great second-half performance,” McGrath noted
“We picked up a bit in the second half. Maybe at the start, we did leave players isolated, weren’t quick enough in to support at times and maybe that comes from not playing games from the last five or six weeks. One thing you’re always getting from the girls is fierce work rate. We done some silly things but I suppose their character and will to win shone through in the finish.
“There were seven points in it for a finish but whether we were seven points better than them is open to question. They missed a few goals in the last four or five minutes but it was all about getting over the line and getting a ticket to the final.
“We know we’ve a huge challenge against Dicksboro in the final. We played them earlier on in the year, before the championship stared. At that stage we’d a full outfit and they beat us seven or eight points in a challenge. They’re massive, they’re a mature team and we know they’re probably the team that’s standing out in this campaign all along.
“When you have to come down into the middle of (the opposition), down into their territory and they had fierce support, and there were times when we probably thought we didn’t get the rub of the green out there as well… Between the jigs and the reels, when it’s all over, it’s lovely to get a win down here.”
In their semi-final at Donaghmore Ashbourne, Dicksboro overturned a five-point interval deficit to book their first appearance in the decider and the first for any Kilkenny team since, ironically given what will be at stake, St Lachtain’s completed their three-in-a-row in 2006.
A goal from the outstanding Caitrin Dobbin put last year’s runners-up, Loughgiel Shamrocks in the box seat at half-time but they only managed two points in the second half, while Asha McHardy pounced for two goals to propel the ‘Boro into the decider on a 2-13 to 1-10 scoreline.
The senior final will be played as part of a double header with the intermediate decider and that will be contested by former junior champions Clanmaurice (Kerry) and Na Fianna (Meath).
The girls from the Kingdom continue to raise their standards and beating Galway opponents Shamrocks was another considerable scalp as they advanced courtesy of a 1-12 to 2-5 scoreline yesterday.
Na Fianna had to dig very deep to chisel out a 1-9 to 0-9 victory over Tyrone side, Eglish on Saturday.
The junior semi-finals were also held and Granemore (Armagh) came out on top of a thriller with Knockananna (Wicklow) by 3-12 to 3-6. They will play Roscommon’s Athleague, who edged out St Joseph’s Doora Barefield of Clare by 2-6 to 0-9.
The junior B final will be between Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) and St Munna’s (Westmeath) at NGDC Abbotstown on December 16. Cross were far too strong for Roscommon Gaels in their semi-final, leading by 3-7 to 0-2 at half-time before cruising to a 7-12 to 1-3 success.