Cork hold off late Galway surge to claim the silverware
THEY had to withstand a spirited Galway surge in the final-quarter, but Cork deservedly reclaimed the National Football League Division One trophy at Parnell Park yesterday.
Martina O’Brien, Ciara O’Sullivan, Orla Finn and Eimear Scally produced outstanding individual displays to earn Cork their 12th title at this grade. Though Cork’s season will ultimately be defined by how they fare come Championship time, in light of Dublin’s recent stranglehold on the national prizes, the importance of this win cannot be underestimated.
Since they were last crowned NFL champions in 2017, Ephie Fitzgerald has maintained the policy of injecting fresh blood into the Cork squad. Like their Munster counterparts, there has also been something of a transition within the Galway ranks. Of the team that was edge out by Cork – on a replay – in the 2015 decider, only five players remained in place.
In stark contrast to the Rebelettes’ record of 11 wins out of 12 (their sole reversal coming to Monaghan in 2012), Galway were searching for their maiden triumph following five defeats in previous finals.
Whereas the Division Two curtain-raiser between Cork’s Munster rivals Kerry and Waterford was a high-scoring encounter – 5-13 to 1-17 in favour of the Deise – this top-tier showpiece was always expected to be a cagey affair.
Following a template that served them so well in their last-four success at the expense of Donegal, the westerners dropped a host of bodies inside their own 45.
This strategy was deployed with a view to limiting the influence of O’Sullivan and Finn – whose place-ball accuracy had played a pivotal role in Cork reaching their ninth league final of the decade.
After creating early daylight through a Tracey Leonard free, Galway caused their opponents to recycle possession with some disciplined defensive work. The Leesiders kept their composure in the face of mounting pressure, however, and Finn finally opened their account on eight minutes.
Even though skipper Martina O’Brien (standing in for Doireann O’Sullivan) failed to find a colleague off her first kick-out, she enjoyed a 100% success rate (eight from eight) for the remainder of the half. This helped Cork to establish an attacking template and in spite of Roisin Leonard restoring Galway’s one-point cushion, they subsequently hit the front through Ciara O’Sullivan and Libby Coppinger scores.
Before Finn could add her first free of the contest, Mairead Seoighe was sin-binned for a body check on Cork full-back Hannah Looney. Given how Galway had opted to set-up, this was the ideal opportunity for the Rebelettes to exploit the extra space on offer.
Nevertheless, it was during this juncture that the Connacht women displayed their mettle. Megan Glynn conjured their first point from play and this was soon supplemented by Roisin Leonard.
Indeed having fought hard to regain the initiative – Finn and Eimear Scally were on target in quick succession. Then Roisin Leonard’s bid to break free down the left-flank was halted by Aishling Hutchings and the versatile Fermoy star paid the price with 10 minutes on the sideline.
While Cork also largely held their own with 14 players, there was a couple of let-offs either side of the interval that could have drastically changed the complexion of the game. In the closing moments of the opening period, the excellent Sinead Burke released Megan Glynn for an opening on goal but the Claregalway forward couldn’t capitalise. With just two points separating the teams at the break (0-7 to 0-5), a 35th-minute penalty presented a potential lifeline to Galway.
However the ever-dependable O’Brien turned away Roisin Leonard’s resulting effort and instead of being forced to chase the game, Cork proceeded to dominate the remainder of the third-quarter. In addition to Hutchings’ return to the fray, the double introduction of Saoirse Noonan and Eimear Meaney on 37 minutes helped to propel Cork into the driving seat.
Meaney applied a sense of calm to the Leeside rearguard and after returning to the fold in time for the epic semi-final showdown with Dublin, a fit-again Noonan bagged the opening goal of the game on 44 minutes.
Niamh Cotter, Scally (excellent throughout) and Finn had contributed points prior to the Nemo Rangers ace finishing off a sweeping move. Given they had now created a gap of 1-10 to 0-5, Cork looked set to cruise over the line.
To Galway’s credit, they refused to throw in the towel and Charlotte Cooney’s major 12 minutes from time added renewed life to their challenge.
The temporary dismissals of Niamh Cotter and Ciara O’Sullivan permanently forced Cork on the back-foot in the dying moments and a stunning Louise Ward finish dramatically cut the gap to two points.
The ability to see out a game when it’s in the melting pot has been Cork’s bread and butter down through the years and it was once again in evidence yesterday. They clinically held onto the ball until the final hooter sounded, bringing the curtain down on another big success for Cork senior women’s football.