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Mayo's deadly inside trio epitomise the journey this side has been on

Grace Kelly, Sarah Rowe and Rachel Kearns have pointed the way to an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park.

FROM THE 2017 All-Ireland final to a mass player walkout last summer, the past 23 months or so has been an absolute rollercoaster ride for the Mayo ladies.

And here they are, against all odds, back in Croke Park. 

mayo (1) Deadly inside trio: Grace Kelly, Rachel Kearns and Sarah Rowe. Source: Inpho.

On Sunday, they face Connacht rivals Galway in an historic All-Ireland semi-final double-header at HQ, with a coveted decider spot on offer. 

Mayo’s journey has been absolutely fascinating to follow over the past two years and one thing’s for sure, Peter Leahy’s charges have slowly but surely battled back to the top.

And leading the charge is a deadly inside forward line. 

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Sarah Rowe. Rachel Kearns. Grace Kelly. 

This trio have been a revelation working together this year. In the All-Ireland series, the Westerners have clocked a fine total of 6-48 in three games. And the vast majority of that has come from their deadly inside forward line.

Let’s revisit the Connacht championship first however, and that final and subsequent replay against Sunday’s opposition, Galway.

The first day was a rip-roaring encounter in Castlebar, in which Mayo posted 3-6 and Galway hit 1-12. Off the back of a lengthy lay-off between league and championship, Rowe, Kearns and Kelly combined for 2-5. Of course, much more was to come but that set the tone going forward. 

This brilliant goal from Kelly showed just how good Mayo could be.

Substitute Emma Needham pounced to capitalise on a Galway mistake in Mayo’s half, she took off on a run before picking out the on-rushing Kelly with a sublime footpass. And from there, Kelly did her thing, slicing through the heart of the Galway defence before placing the ball into the bottom left-hand corner to raise a green flag.

Similarly, Kearns has been a huge player for the county this year, and she finished with 1-2 that day. In Rowe’s absence for AFLW, the 22-year-old took the number 14 jersey, and has held onto it ever since.

You could actually call Kearns a defender-turned keeper-turned forward. An All-Star nominated half-back and blocking expert, the former Ireland underage star went between the posts in last year’s league final and produced some superb saves, but she’s settled nicely on the edge of the square this year.

She’s been a constant threat and thorn in the side for teams week in, week out, with many opting to do a double- or triple-marking job on the versatile Crossmolina woman.

The dynamic with her as the focal point, and Rowe making the move to the corner has definitely paid dividends, with the likes of captain Niamh Kelly and Sinead Cafferky then able to run off and create strong links.

Rowe and Grace Kelly led the scoring charge in the replay with 0-3 a-piece, where unfortunately, Leahy’s charges never hit the heights of the performance they delivered in the drawn game as Galway ran out 3-7 to 0-9 winners in the replay.

One thing that stood out that day, though, was the fact that Rowe, Kelly and Kearns all took — and scored — free-kicks. Everyone knows how important it is to have a reliable and competent free-taker on a team, but to have three is pretty handy.

Interestingly, that game is the only of the 2019 championship that the Green and Red didn’t find the back of the net.

From there, it was straight into the All-Ireland group stages the following week with the games coming thick and fast. 

After the long lay-off between the league and provincial campaign, everything came in quick succession. Much like their men’s side, Mayo seem to enjoy the week-on-week nature of the competition, and being on the road.

They, also, don’t make things easy for themselves and like to grind out wins, often digging deep to get over the line, but their inside forwards most definitely know when and how to turn on the style.

Their first outing came against Tyrone; Kearns, Kelly and Rowe firing a handsome 3-10. The former posted 2-3 from play, while Moy Davitts star Kelly notched the other goal as Mayo drew first blood in a rather difficult group.

While the trio can obviously put their foot firmly on the peddle on the scoring front, it’s their movement off the ball that also works a treat.

With the Red Hand producing one of the shocks of the summer the following week in beating Donegal, it blew the group wide open with it all coming down to the final day. 

Not many would have foreseen it but the Westerner’s came out on top of a real titanic battle, knocking the Ulster champions out of the race for the Brendan Martin trophy in the process. 

And of course, it was the full-forward line that led the charge once again, combining for 1-20 of the 1-22 total.

Sarah Rowe celebrates with Rachel Kearns and Sarah Mulvihill Rowe and Kearns have worked really well together. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Rowe really stood up with 0-9, five of those points coming from play, Kelly fired one less in 0-8 — half of it from open play — and Kearns hit the all-important goal and tagged on three frees.

That was a real coming-of-age performance for this ever-rising side, and one they’ve definitely taken huge confidence from: not only did they beat serious All-Ireland contenders Donegal, they knocked them out of the competition.

While that result confirmed that Mayo are on their way back to the top, they doubled down on that in the last-eight stage, making a huge point in progressing back to Croke Park, and the business end, after what could have easily turned into years in the doldrums.

Armagh were their quarter-final opposition, and one encouraging sign that day was the fact that Mayo showed an array of different scorers. While beforehand, it was Rowe, Kearns and Kelly leading the way with one or two others chipping in with a point or two, 10 names featured on the scoresheet against the Orchard county. 

Rowe and Kiltane rising star Maria Reilly rattled the net that day, the latter’s goal a particularly impressive individual one:

Kelly was a standout performer once again and while herself and Kearns only accounted for 0-2 and 0-1 respectively, it was encouraging to see others step up and split the posts. 

That’s exactly what’s needed when they face Galway at Croke Park on Sunday.

If Mayo can go for the jugular early on and utilise their deadly inside three to their full potential, they’ll definitely rattle Galway. 

The Tribe have some damaging forwards of their own in Tracey and Roisin Leonard and the likes, so it’s important that Leahy’s outfit use theirs to their full capacity. 

Discipline will be a huge thing in HQ on Sunday too, and something both sides need to watch as they can’t afford to be losing players for 10-minute spells. Mayo will hope they’ve learned their lesson from the 2017 All-Ireland final, anyway. 

Even at that, both Mayo and Galway have some of the best free-takers in the country, so they’ll happily punish any silly mistakes made or fouls conceded by either defence.

It’s going to be a physical game that’s for sure, a dogfight in which the team that wants it more will more than likely come out on top.

Going by what Mayo have done so far this year, the character and resolve they’ve shown, and their deadly inside trio that could be so, so crucial, they’re most definitely in with a fighting chance.

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Emma Duffy

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