Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Championship final
Antrim v Down
(Saturday, 3.45pm, Kingspan Breffni Park, Live on the BBC iPlayer & RTÉ News)
THE 2020 GAA season has been a year like no other, but it could still have a fairytale ending for the Antrim senior Camogie team. Captain Maeve Connolly will be hoping to lift the James McGrath Cup on Saturday evening at the expense of Ulster rivals Down and their skipper Fionnuala Carr.
Antrim haven’t won the Intermediate All-Ireland since 2003 while Down are seeking their first win since 1998. Yet, Down have reached the last four of the All-Ireland series for the last three successive seasons.
The Mourne County lost out to Cork in the 2018 decider before losing out to eventual champions Westmeath at the semi-final stage of last year’s competition. That big game experience is something Connolly is acutely aware of and the Antrim defender has first-hand experience of facing Down in challenge games with her native Loughgiel Shamrocks.
“Down are a very serious team. Like ourselves, Down have been knocking on the door of this All-Ireland for a good number of years now,” said Connolly.
“They are a tight-kit team and they are well gelled together. They’ve been playing with each other for years and they have experience of success in Ulster and going further than ourselves at different stages of the competition.
“We definitely have a lot of respect for them and they are a great team. My own experience of playing Down would be more with challenge matches with Loughgiel in years gone past. They are a team to be admired. I know they’ve been together a lot longer than ourselves. “
I’ve nothing but respect for them and I see them being a very dangerous threat. Like ourselves, they have a good mix of experienced players and youthful, skilful players.”
Antrim and Down have charted remarkably similar paths to Saturday’s Intermediate final, which will be played as part of a double-header with the Premier Junior Final between Armagh and Cavan at Kingspan Breffni Park.
🏆 The @LibertyIRL All-Ireland Intermediate & Premier Junior Championship Finals are nearly here!— Camogie Association (@OfficialCamogie) November 30, 2020
🗓️ Saturday December 5th
🏟️ Kingspan Breffni, Co. Cavan
⏰ 1.45pm - Armagh v Cavan
⏰ 3.45pm - Antrim v Down
📺 @RTENewsNow @RTEPlayerInt & @BBCiPlayer
➡️ https://t.co/GAGnKURJRR pic.twitter.com/SEFg0yfpja
Down defeated Laois 2-13 to 1-8 in their second round while Antrim had 11 points to spare when they clashed with the Leinster outfit in Inniskeen last month.
The Saffrons claimed a four-point win over Meath in their second round game with the Royal County then losing out to Down by six points in the semi-final.
Despite being unbeaten in their Championship campaign, Connolly feels Antrim have surprised everyone, including themselves, by reaching the final of the All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Championship.
“We are happy to be there (in the final),” said Connolly.
“Every other year, we’ve just been taking it one game at a time and any advancement would have been seen as an another advantage to us.
“I wouldn’t have thought at the start of the year that we would be lining out and playing in an All-Ireland final.
“Obviously, we are absolutely delighted to be in that position, but if you’d have told me at the start of this year that we would have been there, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“New mentors came in this year and we were thinking about two or three years down the line and the build-up that we could make.
“Things have just really went our way thus far and this is the position we’d fought ourselves into.
“We started the year really well with a couple of good wins over Dublin and Tipperary and then the lockdown kicked in. I think because we had started off strong, a lot of the girls took encouragement from that and were mad keen to get back.”
Connolly also feels that the various lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions have helped create a sense of unity within the Antrim panel.
“I think because of the condensed year and the fact that the whole Championship is run off over a couple of months, that definitely helped girls who have other commitments,” added the Loughgiel ace.
“The timing at the end of the year has maybe helped a lot of the girls as well. Sometimes, a lot of people just concentrate on the club scene and maybe just want to stick to playing with their clubs.
“After May, June and July time, there is nothing else going on. I think a lot of the girls at the minute go to work and go to Camogie and that’s literally all we do! We are all glad to get out of the house and have a wee bit of a reprieve from being able to do nothing else. “For the first time in a good while we actually have all of the best players in the county playing for the county.”
Those sentiments were echoed by joint-manager Paul McKillen, who labelled the current squad as the best he’d ever trained and Connolly says club rivalries are left at the gate when the players come to training for the county.
“There is a great hunger there among that team and that’s what drives people on,” stated Connolly.
“Everybody is at training putting in 100 per cent effort.
“There are no bluffers and there’s no messing about. There’s nobody missing training and, from that, there’s a great team morale and a great team spirit.
“Everyone gets on very well and there’s no such thing as just sticking with your club mates and not talking to anyone else. We do take it seriously and train hard, but it is great craic.
“Things have really been going our way, thankfully. I think that goes back to the work that we’ve been putting in at training and the attitude we go in with.
“Paul (McKillen), ‘Jingo’ (Jim McKernan) and Elaine (Dowds) have been amazing at getting us up for games, laying out good teams, telling us what we are doing wrong, telling us what we are doing right.
“I think there’s always a good, strategic plan going out and everyone is really buying in to what they are saying. Collectively, things have been working out well for us.”
Down will be seen as many people’s favourites for Saturday’s decider given the strides the Mourne County have made in recent times.
Antrim, though have shown plenty of heart and desire in their Championship journey thus far and shouldn’t be written off. The late concession of 1-2 in their first outing against Carlow in Inniskeen gave a flattering look to the scoreboard for the Barrowsiders as Antrim were in full command during their 5-10 to 4-9 success.
They were even more impressive when they beat a highly-fancied Meath side 1-16 to 2-9 at the same venue before making it a hat-trick of wins at the Monaghan ground with a 0-14 to 0-3 victory over Laois in the last four.
Antrim will have further to travel on Saturday evening as they venture to Kingspan Breffni Park, but it will be a worthwhile journey if Connolly raises the Jack McGrath Cup.
“It would be an absolute dream come true,” admitted the Antrim skipper.
“When you are a wee girl lining out for U10 and U12 Camogie teams, you have the notion that you want to win an All-Ireland.
“Unfortunately, All-Irelands don’t come around that often.
“Whenever you realise that and you waken up on the morning of an All-Ireland, you’ll want to grab that opportunity by the nails. “
Every single girl on that team, that’s their ambition, that’s where we want to be and that’s what we want to do so it would mean everything to us.”