AS a player, I’ve never cried in victory.
I’ve cried many times in defeat. But when the final whistle blew yesterday, I admit to shedding a tear. What a heart-stopping final. It may not have been a classic, but for sheer endeavour by both teams, it was everything a final should be.
Before I go into my analysis of the game, I want to start with Gemma O’Connor. Twelve months ago, she was sent off in Croke Park for a second yellow offence. Three weeks ago, she took a nasty knock to her knee.
It wasn’t mind games. Gemma genuinely was up against the clock, but as a friend of mine said after the semi-final; if it takes a typical player six weeks to recover from that injury, it’ll take Gemma three.
She lined out yesterday, and what an impact she had on the game. Her point to level it on 60 minutes, well… only Gemma could have done that.
Such composure, such confidence under such pressure.
Cork hadn’t scored in 18 minutes. Few people gave Cork a chance yesterday. Someone mentioned in an interview during the week that they had “stumbled into the final”.
Well, we stumbled up the steps too at 5.15pm.
This win was so crucial. Cork have won three of the last four finals.
But it wasn’t about that. Had Kilkenny won back-to-back titles, I believe we would have found it very hard to knock them off their throne.
Paudie Murray has taken a lot of stick during his six years in charge.
He has been immense. Three titles in six seasons; what manager wouldn’t be happy with that?
Cork went player-for-player from the throw-in. They got their mark-ups right, with Gemma picking up Denise Gaule, Pam Mackey marshalling Katie Power, Rena Buckley on Miriam Walsh, Libby Coppinger marking Shelley Farrell, Laura Treacy on Danielle Morrisey, and Chloe Sigerson taking Julie Ann Malone.
Cork started well. They were composed in working the ball out of defence and then gave good, fast deliveries inside.
We had Kilkenny rattled but we still only went in at the break three points to the good, and that was a concern.
Eimear O’Sullivan, having got the nod to start during the week, was covering massive ground in the middle of the field and giving good distribution. Orla Cronin was just outstanding. She became a leader yesterday.
Libby Coppinger — how many times did she win the race for the 50/50 ball; how many times did she get the hurley in for that crucial touch? Laura Treacy had her best game in the Cork jersey.
Ashling Thompson wore her heart on her sleeve again. A double block down on 12 minutes, a hook she had no right to get in on 28; that’s why Cork are All-Ireland champions again.
Our half-forwards were winning the battle. Orla Cronin, Amy O’Connor, and Katrina Mackey, playing deep, were running Kilkenny and we had space. At other end, Kilkenny were trying to drag Cork out and they weren’t budging, hence Kilkenny’s one point from play in the opening 30 minutes.
Despite their dominance, Cork struck just five points, four from play. But credit Kilkenny’s defence for that, where Grace Walsh in particular was excellent.
Aoife Murray intelligently varied her puck-outs, going short and long. Kilkenny couldn’t read what she would do next.
A hugely important aspect of Cork’s opening-half dominance was how Orla Cronin nullified what is typically a dominant Anne Dalton at centre-back. While Dalton had a better second half, Orla finished the game with three points, won frees, gave great passes, and without doubt won that duel.
Cork didn’t score from the 16th minute to half time, and while Julie Ann Malone hit just one for Kilkenny, the champions did seem to be settling and they finished the half strongly. Half time didn’t do Cork any favours.
They were on the back foot for the opening 10 minutes of the second half as Meighan Farrell (2), who had a very good hour, Katie Power, Shelley Farrell, and Denise Gaule rattled off points. Orla Cronin hit a beauty in return but Kilkenny took the lead for the first time in the game on 39 minutes.
They had changed tactics, now pushing forward, and with their pace, Cork were under pressure. But Laura Treacy and Libby Coppinger were just brilliant during that pressure period.
Ashling Thompson drifted back and won huge ball, including an important free. Gemma was so composed with her deliveries.
We became static up front, often bunching on the 40, and that played into Kilkenny’s hands. Orla Cronin again stepped up to settle Cork with another sublime point.
Katie Power levelled it for the Cats and in a low-scoring game, when Miriam Walsh put them one in front with six minutes remaining, it was simply nerve-wracking.
But what heart from Cork.
Gemma’s absolute beauty levelled the game on the stroke of full time.
Six minutes additional time.
Kilkenny won a soft free on 64.
It was a let-off for Cork as Denise Gaule struck wide. We were heading for a draw.
But Cork could smell that victory was there. No way were they going to settle for that: finish the job.
Orla Cotter to Katrina Mackey to Julia White to hit a point that will be relived for decades by the people of Cork.