All-Ireland Camogie Final heartbreak for Galway
By JIM CARNEY
THREE All-Ireland finals in four years — all three lost. Raw, cruel, heartbreaking for this gallant Galway camogie team.
At Croke Park last Sunday it was almost unbearable. This was as bad a defeat to take as I have ever witnessed. Down through the years I often saw Galway hopes shattered in that theatre of dreams, in all GAA sports, and the hopes of all the other Western counties too. All the long, lonely car journeys home, wishing there could be a second chance for the beaten team to play it again on the Monday, and the outcome would be different. But on all those occasions there was no second chance and it always felt worse, not better, on the Monday.
In 14 All-Ireland final appearances, in the 80-year history of the Camogie Senior Championship, Galway won the coveted title only once, in 1996.
The national Camogie Association was formed in 1904. The game was particularly popular in U.C.G. in the following years and in 1915 the inter-varsity Ashbourne Cup competition was inaugurated, with U.C.G. soon the top camogie college. The Galway Camogie Board was established in the late 1920s, and in 1928 Galway participated in the national Tailteann Games. Making rapid progress, Galway took part in the first All-Ireland Senior Camogie final in 1932, which was played at Galway Sportsground — the only one to be played outside of Dublin. The final even had a Galway referee, the well-known Stephen Jordan from Athenry, but victory went to Dublin by 3-2 to 0-2. The legendary Peg Morris of Headford captained the 1932 Galway team.
Galway went on to participate in the All-Ireland Senior finals of 1933, ‘37, ‘39, ‘40, ‘46, ‘60, ‘62 and ‘93, but without success. Then came the 1996 victory over Cork by 4-8 to 1-15, captained by Imelda Hobbins from Mullagh.
Sadly, it was the only time the O’Duffy Cup was carried in triumph across the River Shannon.
Since then, Galway lost the 1997, 1998 and 2008 finals to Cork, and the two back-to-back defeats by Wexford, 1-12 to 1-10 last year and again by two points on Sunday.
Twelve months ago, there was no doubt about the merit of Wexford’s victory. Galway were outplayed until the closing stages, when they got an injury-time goal direct from a free that flattered them on the scoreboard at the final whistle.
This year it was different: Galway, with Therése Maher — captain last year and the team’s spiritual leader for many years — giving one of the all-time great centre-back displays, were the better side until the final ten minutes and leading by three points at 1-8 to 1-5 they were in the driving-seat. They missed a couple of chances to stretch it out to a five-point lead, which would have left the defending champions needing two goals to keep their crown, and as long as the final was alive as a contest there was a danger that the spirited Wexford women would pull it out of the fire. And they did, dramatically, sensationally, as their captain Ursula Jacob hit a brilliant goal and followed it up with a pointed free and a magnificent “pressure” point from play. From three points down to two up, Wexford turned it around and powered their way into a special place in camogie history — the Roll of Honour now records back-to-back Championship and National League ‘doubles’ for 2010 and 2011.
AT the end of the day, beyond the emotional landscape of Galway’s heartbreaking defeat, this final was narrowed down to the closing ten minutes. That’s the decisive period, of course, in all finals.
Here, in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Wexford won the final ten minutes by 1-2 to no score.
In fairness to the winning captain Ursula Jacob, when her team’s need was greatest, she stood up to be counted.
Aislinn Connolly was one of Galway’s top performers in this final, reminding some of us present at Croke Park of the two epic battles (drawn game and replay) between the men of Galway and Wexford in the 1976 All-Ireland S.H.C. semi-final, both games at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork. In opposition that day were two of the greatest hurlers of their time, John Connolly of Castlegar and Mick Jacob from Oulart – The Ballagh in Co. Wexford. Another Wexford defender in 1976 was Teddy O’Connor from Rathnure. Last Sunday at Croke Park, the All-Ireland final crowd were thrilled by the brilliant skills of John Connolly’s daughter Aislinn, Mick Jacob’s daughter Ursula and Teddy O’Connor’s daughters Claire and Aoife.
Wexford gave more of a team performance than Galway. In fairness to the Galway defence, goalkeeper Susan Earner and all the backs did well as a unit but in general it was individual excellence that kept them in the game, mainly from the driving play of Therése Maher at No. 6, the tremendous workrate of Ann Marie Starr at midfield and the forceful play of Martina Conroy in attack.
Strangely, two Galway players who were outstanding all year, Niamh Kilkenny and Brenda Hanney, the captain, were not at their best on Sunday. Sub-consciously, it may have been a factor that Niamh’s sister Orla, another wonderful player, was left out of the starting XV. Also, the longest-serving member of the team and the only Galway player with a medal from 1996, Veronica Curtin, did most of her scoring this year when sprung from the bench.
What was very disappointing too, and highlighting it cannot be avoided even though all involved are suffering the pain of such a heartbreaking defeat, was the failure of the Galway team management to use their bench in this final. A big game of huge intensity, a battle that was stamina-sapping all through, and amazingly Galway used only one sub, despite seven minutes of time added on for stoppages: five in the first half and two at the end.
It didn’t matter that Galway had hit the front early in the second half. On the previous Sunday at Croke Park, Kilkenny opted for fresh legs (TJ Reid and John Mulhall) even though they were on top from start t0 finish. When Galway were three points up that was the time, in my opinion, to bring in the vastly experienced Regina Glynn to cover in defence and protect that precious lead; Sandra Tannian could have done a good job too, while up front the physical power of Jessica Gill would surely have been a new and different kind of problem for the Wexford defence. At that stage Brenda Hanney could have been withdrawn; being captain is of no consequence at a crucial time like that. By making only one change (Orla Kilkenny for Veronica Curtin), Galway weren’t forcing Wexford to think about changing their own game.
At the same time, of course, it must be acknowledged that while Galway had it there for the taking with ten minutes to go, ultimately the champions won it on merit. When it was there to be won or lost, they came up with a fantastic response.
All was not smooth for them earlier on; they did not score from play in the first half, although that didn’t stop them leading at the interval, 1-2 to 0-3, the goal from a penalty by Una Leacy in the fourth minute.
Played in front of a disappointing attendance (14,974) it was a poor opening period, with many stoppages as Wexford players went down injured all over the field. Galway were going in hard, unlike last year, but they weren’t really able to open it up until the third quarter. By then they had turned it around on the scoreboard, leading 1-7 to 1-4 after Tara Ruttledge’s goal, hit off the ground with great skill.
Five minutes later, at 1-8 to 1-5, it was Galway’s title to lose although, ominously, a beautifully struck free by Ursula Jacob at the Davin Stand end, right-handed from the right with Shefflin-like accuracy, was a sign that the Wexford spirit was still alive and that their captain was ready to lead by personal example.
From there to the final whistle, Wexford grew in stature. Galway blood was turning cold. High up in the Hogan Stand, we could see it coming. The dream died.
Two final thoughts: Wexford proved themselves great champions. The lionhearted Therése Maher of Galway proved — not that she needed to; we knew it already — that she is up there with the best and most versatile camogie players we have seen or may ever see.
Wexford: M. D’Arcy; C. O’Connor, C. O’Loughlin, K. Atkinson; N. Lambert, M. Leacy, A. O’Connor; D. Codd, J. Dwyer (0-1); K. Kelly, U. Leacy (1-0, penalty), M. O’Leary; L. Holohan (0-1), U. Jacob, captain (1-5, 0-4 frees), K. Parrock. Subs., F. Kavanagh, for Codd, 54 mins; E. Quigley, for Holohan, 56 mins; C. Storey, for Atkinson, 63 mins.
Galway: S. Earner; T. Manton, S. Cahalan, L. Ryan; A. M. Hayes, T. Maher, H. Cooney; N. Kilkenny (0-1, a 45), A. M. Starr; N. Coen (0-1), M. Conroy (0-1), A. Connolly (0-2, 0-1 free); T. Ruttledge (1-1), B. Hanney, captain, V. Curtin (0-1). Sub., O. Kilkenny (0-1), for Curtin, 39 mins.
Referee: Mike O’Kelly (Cork).
Herald Sport Player of the Match: Therése Maher (Galway).
All-Ireland Intermediate final, also at Croke Park on Sunday: Wexford 2-12 Antrim 0-15.
All-Ireland Junior final: Waterford 2-11 Down 1-13.