The games might be dogfights but the Cork and Kilkenny rivalry has put camogie in the spotlight

The games might be dogfights but the Cork and Kilkenny rivalry has put camogie in the spotlight

Pamela Mackey holds off Meighan Farrell and Michelle Quilty. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach

A couple of months back, Liberty Insurance filmed a series of video clips on a number of camogie players, focussing on the theme, ‘Camogie made me ready for the real world.’ 

Some of the players involved – Collette Dormer (Kilkenny), Gemma O’Connor (Cork), Michaela Morkham (Offaly) and Mags Darcy (Wexford) – spoke about how their personal struggles off the pitch, hardened them, mentally as much as physically, for life on the pitch.

“Whether I’m struggling through some specialised training exercise, or I’m hiking 20 miles with new recruits, or I’m far away from home in the Lebanon, or in the deserts of Chad, I know I have the resources within to draw on,” said O’Connor. 

“I know I can rely on that doggedness, that mental toughness to help me succeed. 

"I know that I’m tough enough to overcome almost anything. Camogie made me strong.”

O’Connor, one of the game’s most cherished modern warriors, has certainly shown that mental strength in recent years. 

Her late mother Geraldine passed away at 55, shortly after the 2015 All-Ireland final win against Galway.

O’Connor has spoken in the past about her struggles to cope with her mother’s loss but the last few years were also challenging in other ways for O’Connor. 

Sent off in the 2016 All-Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny, O’Connor suffered a torn medial cruciate ligament (MCL) in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. 

Yet she was back within three weeks for the final against Kilkenny. With some heavy strapping on her left knee, O’Connor lasted the full game, managing a monstrous equalising point from the half-way line in the 60th minute before Julia White landed the winner.

It secured O’Connor her eighth All-Ireland senior medal but the win was notable for a number of landmarks; Cork overtook Dublin at the top of the roll of honour; Rena Buckley lifted the O’Duffy Cup on a day where she collected an incredible 18th All-Ireland senior medal; Buckley also became the first woman to captain her county to All-Ireland victory in both camogie and Ladies football.

Yet the victory was sweeter still because, after losing the previous year’s final to their great rivals, Cork wanted to beat Kilkenny as badly as any Cork team ever had before.

Kilkenny captain Anna Farrell and Cork captain Rena Buckley last year. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Kilkenny captain Anna Farrell and Cork captain Rena Buckley last year. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

A year on, and the tables have certainly turned. 

There may not be the same focus or serrated edge to the rivalry that there was heading into last year’s final but a fourth final meeting in five years certainly harks back to the time when Cork and Kilkenny dominated the camogie world.

The big difference this time around is that Kilkenny are now trying to crack Cork in the same way that Cork spent so long desperately trying to break Kilkenny; when they won seven-in-a-row between 1985-’91, Kilkenny defeated Cork in four of those deciders.

That desperation from Cork added an edge to the rivalry decades ago. 

Kilkenny did beat Cork two years ago but three All-Ireland final defeats in five seasons – and a potential fourth All-Ireland defeat to Cork in ten seasons – has turned the gun on Kilkenny. 

With just one All-Ireland in the last 24 years, that desperation from Kilkenny now is even more acute because of the bad blood which has simmered between these two groups over the last couple of seasons.

The competition is far more open now than it was when Cork and Kilkenny was the only camogie show in town. 

Between 1970 and 1995, the two shared 23 of the 26 titles on offer. Galway and Wexford have also won All-Irelands this decade; Dublin and Waterford reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals this season.

Camogie has never had a higher profile. All knockout games were televised live on RTÉ during this championship while the game had a constant presence, and dedicated slot, on ‘The Sunday Game’ evening show throughout the summer.

Attendance figures have gone up but the game still appears to be at a crossroads. There is a sense that the standard and skill levels have dropped, and that the game is becoming too defensive. 

The recent Kilkenny-Galway semi-final produced just seven scores from play. Kilkenny eventually won by 1-10 to 1-7.

Both Kilkenny and Cork operated with sweepers during last year’s All-Ireland decider. 

Hannah Looney battles Grace Walsh and Collette Dormer. 
Hannah Looney battles Grace Walsh and Collette Dormer. 

The weather was a factor but, with heavily packed defences on either side, there were only seven scores in the first half. 

It didn’t get much better after the break; the final score was 0-10 to 0-9. Sunday’s final could be another low-scoring dogfight but the spikiness to the Cork-Kilkenny rivalry has still given the game the kind of profile and attraction camogie needs.

“We’re very lucky that a crunch rivalry has developed between Cork and Kilkenny,” said Camogie Association spokesman Cian Nelson during the week.

The Cork-Kilkenny rivalry always meant something but Kilkenny are driven now by the same manic desire and hunger for success that propelled Cork for years when they were manically hunting – and craving - what the other crowd had.

“We’ve reached five All-Ireland finals and only won one,” said Collette Dormer in one of those video clips.

“We’re well versed in loss at this stage. But you learn to pick yourself up again, to push through that heartbreak and pain, to keep moving. 

"You learn not to see your losses as a weight holding you down but as fuel – fuel to succeed.” 

And that is the kind of onslaught that Cork will now need to meet head on in Sunday’s final.

Linda Collins in action against Kilkenny. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Linda Collins in action against Kilkenny. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

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