By Daragh Ó Conchúir
WHILE Wexford and Galway forced extra-time before the composition of the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final could be confirmed, and the current campaign has been the most competitive in recent memory, few would argue that Cork and Kilkenny are the two best teams in the country.
It is no coincidence either that they possess elite management structures, including levels of sophistication and attention to detail that have driven their teams and the game of Camogie to new levels of power, fitness, tactical authority and skill.
A daughter of hurling legend Shem, Ann Downey was always a leader, even when surrounded by similar strong characters as Kilkenny dominated the Camogie landscape for 20 years. She was there for the county’s entire tally of 12 All-Irelands, accumulated between 1974 and 1994, captain in that most recent victory.
Downey is renowned as a no-nonsense individual, a woman who prefers the direct route to skirting around issues. Players never have to wonder too long about what she is thinking. Her standards are high and the disappointments of the previous 21 campaigns have done nothing to dilute them.
It is notable that while many might view her as hard-nosed, Downey is hugely popular with the players, who were very anxious to have her return to the fray this year, having given the majority of them their heads seven years ago.
She is a tremendous motivator and Sarah Ann Quinlan spoke in reverential tones recently about Downey’s absolute passion for Kilkenny Camogie. Nothing else matters. As far as she is concerned, it is time for someone, and specifically Michelle Quilty this year, to succeed her in leading a climb up the Hogan Stand steps.
To that end, she has recognised the advances within the game and embraced them. Working with two former All-Ireland winners, Paddy Mullally and Conor Phelan as WIT flourished in the Ashbourne Cup convinced her of their worth in terms of modern coaching and preparation, the importance of science, stats and moving away from flogging players until they dropped.
Liam Egan, an All-Ireland Minor finalist in 1984, is responsible for the physical training and he has an important role to play in that regard too. Mark Cooney, who oversaw Maynooth College’s progress to the Purcell Cup Final has been brought in during the summer.
She brought in two former team-mates in her legendary sister Angela, and Breda Holmes. Their mere presence adds gravitas and nous to the camp. They are inspirational but as outstanding forwards, they have practical roles too.
Downey is happy to delegate although true to form, if she has a query, there will be a discussion.
Most impressive has been the manner in which the brains trust has tweaked the line-up throughout the year, eventually coming up with what appears to be the right balance for the knockout stages of the Championship, with Anne Dalton reverting to centre-back, Denise Gaule pitching up around midfield and Anna Farrell causing havoc at wing-forward.
Kilkenny have opted for two separate panels and two separate management teams. Cork have different selectors but Paudie Murray is manager of both and with a close on 10 players likely to be on the bench for the Seniors, there is a significant overlap.
That places greater pressure on management but Murray is a planner, whose meticulousness is renowned.
The teams will travel to Croke Park in separate buses, eight mentors, including Murray, going with the Intermediates. At least a couple of those mentors will spend the game in the stand, relaying information from that superior vantage point – something that will be repeated in the subsequent game.
While this is going on, there will still be nine selectors/coaches attending to the Seniors’ needs.
Consider that this scenario has been trialled twice this year, Murray planning for Cork appearing in both the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Intermediate and Senior Finals, with him slipping away towards the end of the Intermediate decider to leave his brother Kevin in charge.
The first of these tests was last March. They repeated it in July. Nothing is taken to chance.
The squads train at different times on the same night and Murray has separate groups of mentors working with them, alternating his own involvement as he sees fit.
An All-Ireland winner at Intermediate and Junior level with the Cork footballers, he has also included others with experience of success at the highest level, such as Kevin, former All-Star Niall McCarthy and Teddy O’Donovan, who is one of two goalkeeper coaches along with George Fitzgibbon for Murray’s sister Aoife and her young protegée Amy Lee.
Murray had to endure plenty of criticism as Cork fell short in his first two seasons. His introduction of a sweeper was innovative and he was the first to eschew orthodoxy in team lineouts. It induced horror in one of the most traditional GAA counties and the knives were being sharpened as the 2014 season got under way.
He is a man with a vision though and conviction to match. The county board stuck with him and he fine-tuned the system. The pressure must have been severe but Cork won the next two All-Irelands and are back for more.
The greatest compliment to the Rebels’ game plan – which is replicated by the Intermediates – is that opponents know what is coming but still struggle to deal with it. There are plenty who don’t like it but being beaten always grates.
We all wonder why Gemma O’Connor is always free to pick up so much loose ball but that is a testament to the plan, the practice, St Finbarr’s legend’s reading, and the massive workrate of the likes of Ashling Thompson, Briege Corkery, Hannah Looney and others.
In Niall Collins, Murray has a trusted statistician and video analyst who provides him with the necessary packages and information on which the Cork boss bases preparation – be it in terms of his own players or the opposition.
As a result, he invariably gets his match-ups right and works the system that gives O’Connor free rein to nip opposition attacks in the bud and at the same time, get Cork flowing.
Downey and Murray are both winners away from Camogie too, with Downey also winning a remarkable seven All-Ireland Club titles and excelling in veterans’ squash and golf after her retirement. For his part, Murray runs two successful businesses.
They know what it takes, but only one will prevail tomorrow.