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Race for Brendan: The four teams bidding for All-Ireland ladies football glory

Champions Meath face Donegal, and Kerry and Mayo also do battle in today’s Croke Park double-header.

Management watch: Eamonn Murray (Meath), Maxi Curran (Donegal), Michael Moyles (Mayo) and Darragh Long (Kerry, joint-manager with Declan Quill).
Management watch: Eamonn Murray (Meath), Maxi Curran (Donegal), Michael Moyles (Mayo) and Darragh Long (Kerry, joint-manager with Declan Quill).
Image: Inpho/Sportsfile.

THE RACE COMES down to this four in the pursuit of the Brendan Martin Cup.

Croke Park plays host to a mouth-watering double-header today, the TG4 All-Ireland senior championship wide open and the Dublin-Cork dominance well and truly broken.

It’s the first time since 2002 that neither of those heavyweights will contest the final.

Reigning champions Meath will be favourites for the crown, having breathed new life into the competition last year, but anything could happen. It’s anyone’s game.

  • Mayo v Kerry, Croke Park, 2pm — live on TG4
  • Meath v Donegal, Croke Park, 4pm — live on TG4

Donegal are chasing a first-ever senior final appearance, as Kerry and Mayo look to return to the biggest day for the first time since 2012 and 2017 respectively. The Green and Red were last champions in 2003, and the Kingdom in 1993.

How are they all shaping up?

Meath

The Royals were put to the pin of their collar by Galway last weekend, but Emma Duggan’s buzzer-beating winner saw them prevail. Donegal are next up as they bid for back-to-back titles, the historic 2021 success firmly in the past by now. Eamonn Murray’s side added a first-ever Division 1 league crown to their cabinet in April, defeating Donegal in the final by two points, but fell short to Dublin in the Leinster decider. They’re back on track with a 100% record in championship thus far, enjoying their change of role to The Hunted.

emma-duggan Meath's Emma Duggan. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

The Royals will have a little more wind in their sails with both Dublin and Cork out of the race, and Vikki Wall and Orlagh Lally staying put despite recently signing AFLW deals. Their starting team has rarely changed over the past few months, a lot of their players household names by now. Expect a low-scoring, cagey game as they stick to their trusted defensive system, the game evolving as a result in recent months. Meath’s big match experience and know-how proved key down the home straight last week, and they’ll surely look to it once again tomorrow.

Donegal

Maxi Curran’s side will undoubtedly come into this one with their tails up after last Saturday’s monumental win over Dublin. A massive opportunity lies ahead as they target a first-ever senior championship final appearance, and they’ll relish the underdog tag as they gear up for battle with the champions. There was very little between them when they locked horns in the league final, and once again, they’ll look to counter Meath’s defensive system with their own. They have no shortage of firepower up top either with Geraldine McLaughlin, Yvonne Bonner and Karen Guthrie among the best and most experienced forwards in the country.

karen-guthrie Karen Guthrie is back in from the start for Donegal. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

Like their opponents today, they fell short in their provincial final to Armagh. They didn’t exactly set the world alight in the group stages, beating Waterford and falling to Cork, but peaked perfectly to stun the Dubs. They frustrated the Sky Blues, holding them to a single point in the first half. With momentum behind them, they’ll surely look to do the same tomorrow, feeling they can shake things up in just their second-ever senior semi-final. Guthrie is in from the start in one of three changes.

Kerry

This, too, is a big chance for Kerry — one of the game’s true aristocrats and traditional kingpins — to return to the top table. It’s their first semi-final in five years, the Kingdom last featuring in the final in 2012. They’ve already tasted that winning feeling at Croke Park in 2022, defeating Armagh in the Division 2 league decider, before overcoming the Orchard county once again last weekend. 

louise-ni-mhuircheartaigh-celebrates-scoring-a-goal Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh has been outstanding for Kerry. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Under the shrewd tutelage of joint-managers Declan Quill and Darragh Long, Kerry have enjoyed an impressive turnaround in recent years. There were turbulent times before the duo took the reigns; chopping and changing with managers, county board issues and other off-field drama, and league relegation in 2018 after fielding an ineligible player and a winless campaign. Problems with Centre of Excellence access was raised by star forward Louise Ní Mhuirchearigh earlier this year, but they’re still a far cry from those testing times of the past, beating Armagh, Galway and Westmeath since their Munster final defeat to Kerry. Ní Mhuirchearigh and co. will look to continue doing their talking on the pitch today, a year on from a senior championship relegation play-off.

Mayo

Another impressive story, very few would have backed Mayo to reach this stage of the competition in 2022. Like Kerry, their last few years haven’t exactly been straightforward — the infamous 2018 player walkout and subsequent fallout coming to mind — and as captain Kathryn Sullivan said best, they’ve been “stung big time” by the AFLW, but Michael Moyles has steadied the ship and galvanised the set-up.

kathryn-sullivan-dejected Mayo captain Kathryn Sullivan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He’s done so without top stars Sarah Rowe, Niamh and Grace Kelly, Aileen Gilroy (all AFLW) and Rachel Kearns (injury); this young, fearless side boosted by the experience of Sullivan, Fiona McHale and the Cafferky sisters, Lisa and Sinead. The quarter-final win over Cork was a significant one for the Green and Red, adding to group stage victories over Tipperary and Cavan after defeats to Dublin and Galway, the latter in the Connacht final. They’ll look to continue exceeding expectations in their second successive semi-final, surely feeling like they didn’t do themselves justice in last year’s defeat to Dublin. A huge opportunity to reach a first All-Ireland final since 2017 looms large.

BTL 5

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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