All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Championship final
Antrim v Kilkenny (Croke Park, 2pm, Sunday, live on RTÉ 2)
ANTRIM will bid to go one better when they contest their second All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Championship final in less than a year this weekend.
Last December, Antrim lost out to Down at Kingspan Breffni Park, but they’ve regrouped and face Kilkenny in this season’s decider at Croke Park.
Antrim defeated Kilkenny in their Group Two opener in July in Dunloy and defeated Kerry in the semi-final before coming through a tense semi-final battle with Galway in Clones.
The Saffrons withstood a late barrage to book their place in Sunday’s decider and captain Lucia McNaughton feels their tough path to the final will stand them in good stead this weekend.
“I think when you compare the run up to the All-Ireland last year to this year, obviously this year we’ve had more time to prepare because we’ve played the Leagues and the round-robin for the group stages of the Championship,” said McNaughton.
“Last year, we were delighted to get into the final and it was the first time a lot of the girls had played in an All-Ireland final. I think we maybe didn’t know what it took to win. Down had been there for a long time.
“We weren’t at that stage yet. It was a quick turnaround from last year and we did a lot of gym work to turn it around.
“I’d say we are much more prepared this time around and, hopefully, the experience of playing in an All-Ireland final will help us this year too.”
The Loughgiel ace, who turns 26 on Sunday, will become the latest member of her family to run out onto the hallowed turf at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon.
This weekend’s final will be played as part of a triple-header with Armagh and Wexford contesting the Premier Junior final at 12 noon while Cork and Galway clash in the Senior final at 4.15pm.
Last season, only the Senor final was played at Headquarters with Kingspan Breffni Park hosting the Premier Junior and Intermediate deciders.
McNaughton feels it is only right that the All-Ireland finals of all grades are played at the famous stadium and says the Saffrons will relish the experience on Sunday.
“It will be my first time playing there,” said McNaughton.
“My granny played for Antrim there back in 1947 and my daddy (Seamus) played in the 1983 All-Ireland final for Loughgiel against St Rynagh’s (Offaly). They drew that final and won the replay in Casement Park.
“My brother James played there in December in the Joe McDonagh Cup and they were lucky enough to win that. My sister Úna also played in the World Games for Australia two years ago in Croke Park.
“Last year the finals weren’t in Croke Park. It is a venue at the end of the day and the All-Ireland is the most important thing, but it is more special when you are able to play in Croke Park.
“All of our girls have never been on the grass and it is that special touch at the end of the day and we are looking forward to getting out on to it.”
Paul McKillen, who is joint-manager along with Sarsfield’s stalwart Jim McKernan, hailed Antrim’s win over Galway as their best performance of the year.
After defeating Kilkenny, Antrim lost out to Cork before beating Kildare in their final Group Two game in Portglenone.
They scored a comprehensive 4-19 to 1-7 win over Kerry in the quarter-finals before edging out Galway 2-13 to 1-13 in last month’s semi-final in Clones while Kilkenny defeated Meath by four points in the other semi-final.
McNaughton agreed with McKillen’s assessment of their stunning win over Galway, but added that their previous win over Kilkenny will county for little when the sides reoppose this weekend.
“I think the semi-final was our best performance of the year,” added the Loughgiel midfielder.
“Obviously, every time you go out, you try and up your performance and change different thing in your game.
“The Galway match went down to the wire and it took everything in us to get other the line in the end.
“We were happy to see a good performance as well as a win. Galway are an amazing team too, so to get that under our belt helped us as well.”
Reflecting on the opening win over the Cats, McNaughton added: “It was a good tight game.
“I think both teams have changed and improved since then.
“It is an All-Ireland final and I’d imagine it will be much tougher.”
McKillen and McKernan should have a clean bill of health for Sunday’s final with defender Chloe Drain returning for the win over Galway.
Her Dunloy colleague Áine Magill will be playing in her second All-Ireland final in the space of a week after scoring 1-2 in last Sunday’s drawn Minor ‘B’ final against Offaly.
If Antrim can reproduce the kind of form which saw them defeat Galway in the semi-final, they could claim a second victory over Kilkenny and lift the Jack McGrath Cup for the first time since 2003.