AFTER Cork’s epic league semi-final win against All-Ireland champions Dublin last month, Melissa Duggan said that the Rebels ‘wanted to show everyone we are back’.
Those back-to-back league wins – group stage and semi-final – against the best team in the country highlighted that Cork are comfortably in that top bracket as contenders.
Last weekend’s Division 1 league final victory against Galway – a team who Cork selector James Masters had hailed as the form team in the country this year – has re-emphasised that Cork are not only back but they are serious contenders for the big prize this summer.
Last year Cork went all the way to the All-Ireland final but were a distant second best to the Dubs
To be fair, Cork were and still are in transition. Six players played in their first All-Ireland senior final last year. Only seven who started in Croke Park last September had started the county’s last All-Ireland senior final in 2016. There was a changing of the guard. Time and patience were needed.
Now we’re starting to see the results.
Melissa Duggan is in her third season as a Cork senior and was one of those playing her first All-Ireland senior final in 2018 but she has already matured into one of the best defenders in the country. This week she was also named the Ladies Football Player of the Month for April.
Duggan is part of that new wave of Cork footballers who have the ability, talent and work ethic to return the county to the very top. Eimear Meaney was another All-Ireland final debutant in 2018, as were Bantry Blues’ Emma Spillane, St Colum’s Libby Coppinger, Hannah Looney and Maire O’Callaghan. All those six featured in last Sunday’s league final win against Galway.
Then there is the younger brigade. The Kiely twins, Eimear and Daire, from Valley Rovers; wing back Eimear started in all nine league games and Daire has also played in all nine. O’Donovan Rossa’s Laura O’Mahony, a minor in 2018, has started five of the nine. Leaving Cert student Clare O’Shea, from Beara, has started at corner back in the last three games and was a used sub in the two before that. Kinsale Sadhbh O’Leary is a young attacker that has played regularly in this campaign too.
These are all real and viable options for the championship – and the battle for the big prize: the All-Ireland.
Orla Finn hailed the strength of the Cork squad: ‘We have an unbelievable panel this year. We have five, six or seven subs that can come on and fill the same positions as we have starting players.’
James Masters has said this is the most competitive squad he has seen since he got involved in 2016. The scrap to earn a place in the Cork attack highlights the depth of talent Cork now has: Finn, Ciara O’Sullivan, Doireann O’Sullivan, Áine Terry O’Sullivan (who missed the league final through suspension), Orlagh Farmer, Eimear Scally, Libby Coppinger, super sub Saoirse Noonan, Rhona Ní Bhuachalla, Laura O’Mahony and Sadhbh O’Leary. That’s serious firepower there.
Cork end the league in a far healthier position than when they started – and they did lose two of their first three games as well – and they now have a stronger panel to pick from, and players who now have the confidence of beating Dublin and Galway in important games that mattered.
The championship will be a different animal but Cork look primed for their first serious All-Ireland title bid since 2016 – and with a team that has been transformed in those few years in between.
As Melissa Duggan said, Cork are back.