All-Ireland Senior Club Camogie final: Slaughtneil on verge of history as Sarsfields trilogy looms

By Matt GaultBBC Sport NI
Youth development key to Slaughtneil success - O'Kane
All-Ireland Senior Club Camogie final: Slaughtneil v Sarsfields
Venue: Croke Park, Dublin Date: Sunday, 1 March Throw-in: 15:30 GMT
Coverage: Live video stream on the BBC Sport website

A new decade, but the same story for Slaughtneil.

At the beginning of the 2010s, Slaughtneil camogs had yet to win their first Derry championship. On Sunday evening they could be toasting their fourth All-Ireland title in a row.

Theirs is a story that continues to inspire. The club captured the imagination of GAA fans throughout Ireland during the 2016-17 season when all three codes won their provincial championship.

Of course, while the hurlers were outclassed by Cuala in their semi-final a few weeks before the footballers narrowly missed out to Kerry kingpins Dr Crokes in their final, the camogs triumphed over Sarsfields.

Since then, Slaughtneil have established a dynasty, one that puts them on the precipice of joining Wexford's Buffer's Alley as the only clubs to win four consecutive All-Ireland championships.

The Oak Leaf side have come a long way. There have been dizzying highs, but Grainne O'Kane - who has been joint-captain with Siobhan Bradley since 2018 - appreciates the significance of their lows.

"It wasn't that long ago we were losing in Derry championships," says O'Kane.

Slaughtneil joint-captains Grainne O'Kane and Siobhan Bradley celebrate the club's third All-Ireland title in 2019
Slaughtneil joint-captains Grainne O'Kane and Siobhan Bradley celebrate the club's third All-Ireland title in 2019

For O'Kane, the defeats shaped Slaughtneil identity long before their extended stay at the summit, like losing the Ulster final in extra-time to Cushendall in 2015.

"The heartache of getting beaten in the Ulster was a learning curve. It was a motivational time for us when we had to sit down and think 'what are we missing' and 'what do we have to improve on?'"

Since that loss, Slaughtneil have barely looked back during a period which has utterly transformed the mindset at the club.

Where once they were fielding questions about what they needed to do to get to the top, they're now quizzed on how they've managed to stay there.

"We're all very competitive people," explains O'Kane.

"If we didn't have camogie, what else would we be doing? It's nice to come together as players and focus on the same goals.

"We're always trying to make each other better, so it's great to have that motivation within the squad.

"It's a big commitment but new girls coming into the panel really motivated me this year, their energy and buzz was really refreshing and that has spread throughout the team."

Of course, Slaughtneil are facing familiar foes in Sarsfields, the Galway side who they faced in the 2017 and 2018 finals.

After Slaughtneil edged a ding-dong battle 1-10 to 0-11 in Croke in 2017, former Offaly star Tina Hannon scored 1-8 in 2018's showpiece in Clones as the Oak Leafers again downed the Galwegians.

Tina Hannon scored 1-8 to help Slaughtneil beat Sarsfields in the 2018 final in Clones
Tina Hannon scored 1-8 to help Slaughtneil beat Sarsfields in the 2018 final in Clones

Knowing the quality of Sarsfields, O'Kane is expecting a 'hard-hitting' game as the two complete their trilogy of All-Ireland deciders.

"It's going to be a big challenge.

"We've played them before and we know they are a quality camogie side and they will come at us all guns blazing.

And while O'Kane boasts a wealth of experience, she dismisses the suggestion that Slaughtneil's knowledge of closing out All-Ireland finals gives the Ulster champions an edge.

"There are a lot of girls who have just come into the panel this year so this will be their first time in an All-Ireland final.

"Hopefully our sense of calmness and being in control will rub off on them and we as a team can control our nerves."

Sarsfields out to stop Slaughtneil's history-chasers

While Slaughtneil's journey continues to attract plaudits, Sarsfields deserve plenty of credit, too, for re-establishing themselves as a force in the All-Ireland series.

After the defeats in 2017 and 2018 they suffered huge disappointment in losing the Galway county final to Ardrahan.

But that proved only to intensify their desire to get back to Croke.

"It was tough last year losing the county final to Ardrahan," admits Sarsfields midfielder Niamh McGrath.

"This year, we went back and said we would take it one game at a time. It was always our goal to get back here.

Niamh is one of five McGraths in the Sarsfields set-up. Her father Michael 'Hopper' McGrath, the former Galway hurler who won two All-Ireland titles during a stellar inter-county career, manages the team while her sisters, Orlaith, Clodagh and Siobhan, play alongside her.

Niamh is one of four McGrath sisters on the Sarsfields panel
Niamh is one of four McGrath sisters on the Sarsfields panel

All four sisters were involved in the 2017 and 2018 finals, and while there is clearly a determination to exorcise the ghosts of finals past, McGrath insists previous encounters between the clubs have no bearing on Sunday's clash.

"They're an amazing club with what they've done for Ulster camogie.

"But there is no mental block. In 2017, I don't think we were ready and we probably didn't deserve to win and in 2018 we had a lot of serious injuries as well as the game being re-arranged.

"We've definitely matured since then. We've got fitter and stronger and we're going to take on Slaughtneil like we would any other team."

Both clubs have clear incentives. While Sarsfields are hoping that 2020 yields a first-ever Bill and Agnes Carroll Cup, Slaughtneil are one step away from the four-in-a-row promised land.

The stakes are rarely this high.

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