Ulster’s top two go again, but Shamrock need to level the score

NWP Ulster Senior club final :

Sunday 21st October 2.30pm in O’Neill Park Dungannon

Slaughtneil Emmett’s (Derry) v Loughgiel Shamrocks (Antrim)

The top two teams in Ulster Camogie go head to head once again today at O’Neill Park, Dungannon in what promises to be a real thriller. This will be their fourth final meeting in a row with the Derry champions leading 2-1, but all of the games have been close, and two years ago it took a replay to seperate the sides. Loughgiel won in 2015, while Slaughtneil came back to take the titles in 2016 and ’17 before going on to make history by winning back to back All Ireland titles. As everyone in Loughgiel knows being All Ireland champions gives a team that little bit extra and there is now doubt that this Slaughtneil team have that X factor, their skill level and never say die attitute is unquestionable.

lOUGHGIEL V SLAUGHTNEIL 2Loughgiel captain Una McNaughton lifts the Ulster Club Championship trophy aloft as she celebrates with the team mates after their victory over Slaughtneil in the 2015 final at Armagh Athletics Grounds. Pic by John McIlwaine

When PJ O’Mullan took over as manager of the Loughgiel senior camogie panel at the start of 2018, this game was always going to be the only one that really counted.

Like Slaughtneil in Derry, Loughgiel were considered so far ahead of the pack in Antrim that there was little doubt that they would go through the season unbeaten as they had done last year.

This is the Shamrocks’ first serious test since last year’s Ulster final in the Athletic Grounds when not even a brilliant start from the Saffron champions could derail Slaughtneil’s bid for back-to-back titles.

The Emmett’s went on to claim a second successive All-Ireland and have not been beaten in championship now since Loughgiel edged them in the 2015 final. Indeed their last serious test was at the end of the March in the delayed All-Ireland final in Clones.

It is fair to say that both clubs will have the core of last October’s team on show again today (SUNDAY), but that both are also altered in some way or other.

Slaughtneil had to replace Claire McGrath and the McGuigans, Dervla and Denise, who were all unavailable this season. Last October Shannon Graham had just returned from travelling and only came on for the last quarter when Slaughtneil were already closing in on Loughgiel’s lead.

CRLY0237Mary Kelly’s looping hand-pass gives Slaughtneil victory in the 2016 replay in Maghera. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

Shannon, of course, went on to play a key role in the All-Ireland campaign and has been in scintillating form at midfield this season beside Cliodhna Mulholland who had not featured last season at all.

Also into the team has come Orla McNeill in defence and last year’s regular second half sub, Céat McEldowney, although there is a question mark as to where she will feature.

In the Derry quarter-final against Ballinascreen with Therese Mellon still to return from injury, Céat played at corner-forward and scored 2-3. A fortnight later in the Derry final, she turned in a very competent performance at corner-back; a more than useful utility player giving the management options.

Loughgiel have a couple of personnel changes, injury holding the experienced Emma McMullan as a substitute while several other players were key to the extended run of the Intermediate team.

Charlene Campbell (top left), Laura Connolly (bottom left) and Caitrin Dobbin will all be in action for the Shamrocks today.

Back into the team is the experienced Charlene Campbell after maternity leave – but at corner-back as opposed to her normal midfield/half-forward role. And she is one of several positional changes this year that look to have freshened up the team. The introduction of Roisin McCormick to senior ranks this year has eased the burden on Racquel Murphy and both are in flying form, while Caitrin Dobbin is back to her best form for a couple of years. 2015 captain Una McNaughton has gone to far off shores but PJ O’Mullan had been able to introduce new blood from a panel with real depth.

The problem for both teams is still the lack of competition in their domestic competitions. Winning matches by 20 or more points does not really prepare a team for an Ulster final showdown – and it is questionable whether challenge games give the management enough ideas of alternatives when the pressure is on.

The pressure will be on for both teams on Sunday, but in a way Loughgiel should be able to approach the game with a little less of it than the champions who have to start as favourites.

From what I have seen this year both teams are in tremendous shape and the winner would have to be in the frame to add the All-Ireland title, albeit that the semi-finals are still nearly three months ahead.

Both teams have great presence all over the pitch, allied to pace and tactical nuance. Perhaps Slaughtneil have the edge in actual game management and that experience of having secured back to back titles. But it would be no surprise if the Shamrocks caught them.

CRLY0458Slaughtneil players celebrate their 2016 replay win in Maghera. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

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