DESPITE being firm favourites to top their LGFA All-Ireland Championship group for a second year in succession, Cork senior manager Ephie Fitzgerald is expecting stern resistance from Cavan and Armagh in their round-robin encounters.
While the Leesiders were able to put their feet up following another successful Munster campaign, the Ulster duo met in a thrilling affair at Bawnboy last weekend.
Courtesy of Aisling Maguire’s last-gasp free, Cavan claimed the spoils with a single point to spare: 3-18 to 6-8.
As part of a double-header with the meeting between Donegal and Tyrone, the Breffni county provides the opposition to the Rebels in Group One at Cusack Park, Mullingar on Saturday (throw-in 3.30pm).
Seven days later, O’Connor Park, Tullamore is the destination for their showdown with Armagh — who they also met in the 2018 Championship.
“They’re two televised matches, which I think is nice for the girls as well. They’re neutral venues. We’re looking forward to it.
“We’re in a tough group. Cavan on any given day can cause major trouble, as can Armagh,” Fitzgerald acknowledged at the All-Ireland Championship launch.
“Our preparation has gone very well. I don’t think we could have done any more really.
“We’re looking forward to it now, bar picking up any injuries now over the next week and a half. Things have gone well for us. Looking forward to the challenge.”
The only major injury concern for Fitzgerald and his management in recent months has been that of team captain Doireann O’Sullivan.
Since being handed the key leadership role at the beginning of 2019, a persistent back issue has largely kept the Mourneabbey star on the sideline.
The NFL Division One and Munster crowns have been accumulated in her absence, but Fitzgerald is delighted nevertheless that the five-time All-Ireland winner is available once again.
“She’s back in full training now. Obviously she hasn’t played any games for a long time, so every training session you can see that little bit of sharpness coming back.
“She’s had a horrendous time with her back and I guess it has gone on for the best part of five or six months now. But she’s pain free now and she’s moving very well.
“She’s a big addition to us, but it’s not something we’ll be rushing with her. We just need to ease her back in. It’s a great time of the year to have her available, to be honest.
“She’s our captain, our leader and she’s also a fantastic footballer. We’re thrilled that she’s back and available for selection.”
The league success in May was the third of Fitzgerald’s reign, adding to previous victories in 2016 and 2017.
Yet their quest for another national title appeared to be in jeopardy on February 23, when they suffered a second defeat in just three games at the hands of Tipperary.
He admits losing to their Munster rivals was something of a watershed moment as it meant they couldn’t afford another slip-up for the remainder of the campaign.
Six straight triumphs ensued for the side — including the all-important showpiece against Galway at Parnell Park.
“The Tipperary match was probably a bit of a watershed for us. The first few matches I didn’t mind, because we were only just back training. We had nothing done really and we were experimenting a bit with the team. We lost to a good Galway team obviously, but the Tipperary match we were disappointed with our performance. We felt we should have won and we left it behind us.
“It was a blessing in disguise in lots of ways.
“We had to win the rest of their games to qualify for the semi-finals and we did. We built a bit of momentum from there. Obviously we had to play Dublin and Galway to win the thing. All in all, very pleased with the league.
“It gave us an opportunity to give game time to the younger girls and I think they’ve come through with flying colours.”
Like all of the major challengers for the Brendan Martin Cup, Cork will be mapping out their path to the final in Croke Park on September 15. Should both sides progress without any speed bumps, they are in line to face reigning champions Dublin at the semi-final stage.
This would be a repeat of last year’s decider when a record crowd of 50,141 saw Mick Bohan’s Sky Blues claim their second consecutive All-Ireland crown.
As enticing as it is to contemplate this rematch, Fitzgerald and his charges will be paying due to respect to Cavan and Armagh — who have their own ambitions to make the knockout rounds.
“There’s no point talking about semi-finals, because if we don’t beat Cavan and Armagh…
“We could come second in the group and that could change the dynamic of where you’re going. I wouldn’t look that far ahead. We’re just looking at Cavan and Armagh. Whatever comes out the other side of it comes out the other side of it.
“We’ll see from there. It’d be foolhardy of us really to be disrespectful of the competition and we’d lower our standards to be thinking about semi-finals or even the quarter-finals. We just want to perform next week and if we get over that then, we’ll look at Armagh and see where we go from there. That’s the extent of where we’re at,” Fitzgerald added.