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Cork's perfect start to the league and win over arch-rivals bodes well for the year ahead

So far, so good for the Rebels.

IT’S EARLY DAYS yet, but Cork are the ones to catch so far in 2020.

cork-v-westmeath-2020-lidl-ladies-national-football-league-division-1-round-1 Ephie Fitzgerald talks to his Cork side. Source: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

Ephie Fitzgerald’s side sit top of the Division 1 Lidl Ladies National Football League table with three wins from three. They’re the only team unbeaten, and the early signs indicate they’re in a good position to defend their crown. 

They strengthened their grip atop the table with a massive one-point win over three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions Dublin under Saturday Night Lights in Croke Park, and that in itself sets the year up nicely.

Storm Ciara caused havoc, but the Rebels stormed into the lead at HQ. Ever-dependable All-Star forward Orla Finn and industrious midfielder Hannah Looney led the way, and Cork showed true character as they held off a late rally from their arch-rivals. 

Again, it’s early days, but any win over the Sky Blues comes as a great confidence booster. It was an important one too, with the league semi-finals scrapped this year and the top two finishers going head-to-head in a straight final. 

Cork have looked strong as they wait for big names to return to the fold. Most of the All-Ireland winning Mourneabbey contingent, which includes captain Doireann O’Sullivan and another star forward in her sister Ciara, are yet to see action, but in their absence, many others are stepping up.

Defensive duo Róisín Phelan and Marie Ambrose are welcome additions, for one. 2018 All-Star defender Phelan missed last season due to work commitments in Dublin, while Ambrose is fully fit after a period of injury struggles.

They’ve both played central roles since Cork’s opener in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, helping the county to wins over Westmeath and Tipperary, before Dublin last weekend. 

With Phelan’s return to full-back, dual star Looney has been pushed back out to the middle and she’s a huge presence there alongside Máire O’Callaghan.

While Finn has again been leading the forward line, Fitzgerald has an abundance of talent to choose from there with competition for the six places on offer fierce at the minute. That’s without even considering the O’Sullivan sisters.

roisin-phelan-during-the-game Cork full-back Róisín Phelan. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Beara poacher Áine Terry O’Sullivan bagged 2-1 against Tipp, while Saoirse Noonan has started all three games at full-forward. Mourneabbey All-Ireland winning captain Bríd O’Sullivan has been putting her hand up since re-joining the set-up, while Eimear Scally wrote herself into the history books as the first ladies footballer to score a goal at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in round one. Unfortunately, the Éire Óg ace went off injured moments later and hasn’t appeared since.

Goalkeeper Martina O’Brien, All-Star defender Melissa Duggan and dual star Libby Coppinger are three more who have been consistently showing, as per, while the league is allowing Fitzgerald to blood youth and give younger stars more minutes. 

As is the case with every team. 

Just look at Dublin. Veteran forward Lyndsey Davey made a welcome appearance at Croker on Sunday, but Mick Bohan is still waiting on the return of 2017 and 2018 Players of the Year Noelle Healy and Sinéad Aherne, who is also captain. Key duo Sinéad Goldrick and Niamh McEvoy are also in Australia for the league at least while Olwen Carey is marked absent through study commitments, so there’s plenty of opportunity for other panelists.

Dublin — who were beaten in the 2019 league semi-final last by Cork after extra-time in a replay — have collected just four points from a possible nine. A hard-fought opening day draw with 2019 All-Ireland intermediate champions Tipperary was followed up with a win over Mayo in Castlebar, but Cork then stopped them in their tracks.

It was the latest chapter in a storied rivalry, as all ladies football fans are well aware of. (In short; of the last 15 All-Ireland titles, Cork have won 11 and Dublin have won four. The Rebels won 11 out of 12 between 2005 and 2016, narrowly beating the Sky Blues in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 deciders. Dublin have won the last three finals, exacting revenge on Cork in the 2018 showpiece and 2019 semi-final, but no matter when they meet, it’s a battle. Last year, they locked horns four times; the Leesiders won twice in the league but Dublin won in championship action, while they also drew.)

Libby Copping Eabha Ruthledge Libby Coppinger facing Éabha Rutledge. Source: Sportsfile.

So of course, Cork’s Croke Park win and 100% start to the league bodes well for further competition in the ladies football year ahead.

While Dublin are third in the table, Galway are second, and Tim Rabbitt’s side are eyeing a big 2020 after falling just short in a historic season which saw them end long waits to reach the league and championship finals. 

With two other games falling foul to Storm Ciara this weekend (Tipp v Westmeath, Mayo v Waterford), Donegal are the only others with three played.

Should Cork continue in the form they’re in and keep hold of top spot, the race is well and truly on for second place — and a subsequent league final date on 18/19 April.

Many will tell you, ‘It’s only the league’, but truth be told, early-season silverware does bring confidence through to a hectic championship season. Twelve-time league champions Cork won’t give up their crown too easy, and it’s been an important competition for them through transition periods over the past few years. 

With Fitzgerald’s u-turn decision to return to the helm, there’s a feeling that this year or next, there could be another big breakthrough for the Rebels. He wouldn’t have come back after his dramatic exit if he didn’t think this group had something special.

They’ve enjoyed serious success at underage level and with many of those players coming through and really establishing themselves now, they’re in a good place.

Early days yet, but the fact that Cork are the ones to catch at this stage bodes well for their season, and for the ladies football year ahead.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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