League specialists v championship conquerors – greatest rivalry renewed on the biggest stage

ONE OF THE greatest rivalries in Irish sport is renewed this evening.

The greatest in ladies football, without a shadow of a doubt, anyway, as arch-rivals Cork and Dublin enter familiar territory; battling it out for silverware on the biggest stage.

Cork captain Martina O’Brien and Dublin’s history-making skipper Sinéad Aherne.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Croke Park hosts the Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 final [throw-in 7.30pm, live on TG4], in a move away from its traditional Parnell Park stage. But  untraditional, or unconventional, has been the running theme of the last 15 months.

For the second weekend in-a-row, fans will be present at Gaelic games HQ once again, this double-header — the Division 2 final takes place beforehand — forming the basis of a Government-approved test event for spectators.

It’s a welcome change from last December’s All-Ireland final at the eery, empty venue, when Dublin came out on top of a typically ferocious battle to lift the Brendan Martin cup for the fourth year in-a-row.

It meant that for the 16th consecutive season, one of the two old enemies finished up as All-Ireland champions. 

There’s no question about it, these two great teams have dominated the ladies football landscape over the past decade and-a-half. Well, certainly when it comes to championship matters.

The late Eamonn Ryan’s legendary Rebels lifted the silver 11 times in 12 years between 2005 and 2016, with the Sky Blues winning their first in 2010 to break the chain. Dublin have, of course, since won four-in-a-row, after suffering three decider defeats on the bounce to them.

Their rivalry, and mutual respect, is one like no other in the game, the sides guaranteed to cross swords in the business end of competitions each and every year.

Managers Mick Bohan and Ephie Fitzgerald.

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

While there’s a perception out there that it’s been all Dublin of late, Cork have certainly been the league specialists through the years. 

Ephie Fitzgerald’s side are defending champions, hoping to retain the title they won in 2019 given last year’s league was not completed amidst the pandemic.

They’ve won 12 Division 1 league titles since ’05, and are appearing in the final for the 15th time since ’04. Dublin, on the other hand and to a lot of people’s surprise, are chasing just a second top-flight title, having beaten Mayo in the 2018 decider.

This is just their third final appearance, losing to Cork in the ’14 finale. 

In recent years, Mick Bohan has used the league to blood younger players and unearth new gems on the Dublin fringes. It’s often been said there may be a bit of a hangover from the previous year’s championship success, but the Jackies have certainly found a nice balance this season.

With four wins from four, they’ve used 29 players with some big names like Carla Rowe, Ciara Trant and Nicole Owens yet to take to the field (their bench for tonight is stacked.) Former Irish rugby star Hannah Tyrrell has been the headline find, her return to football a massive boost after Noelle Healy’s retirement and Sinéad Goldrick’s hamstring injury blow, though many others have put their hands up.

Cork, meanwhile, have been more consistent in finding that balance, and have the perfect blend of youth – Erika O’Shea and Sadhbh O’Leary to name just two – and experience, with the evergreen Ciara O’Sullivan leading the charge.

Every time these counties meet, they serve up a classic.

🏆The latest instalment of a gripping rivalry is coming your way tomorrow at @CrokePark, as @CorkLGFA and @dublinladiesg lock horns in the 2021 @lidl_ireland National League Division 1 Final!

🎫Buy your tickets now! 👉https://t.co/SkGHyMuYqF👈#SeriousSupport

📹 @JeromeQuinn pic.twitter.com/itXxn8WTv4

— Ladies Football (@LadiesFootball) June 25, 2021

The most recent fixture was a seven-goal thriller in the group stages at the end of May in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which Dublin won by a single point. As Cork captain Martina O’Brien said during the week, though, this should be more “measured” with the sides likely to play more safely.

Both fond of playing free-flowing, attacking football, you’d hope that will still be the case on Jones’ Road this evening.

Last December, there was a fierce pace and intensity to the All-Ireland final. Cork came out and put the game to Dublin, leading to a very open – and error-ridden – first half, but the eventual winners’ conditioning, physicality, athleticism and big-match experience shone through in the latter stages as the Leedsiders tired.

Cork often go into their shell and change the way they play when they face Dublin, reverting to a more defensive game.

Though league specialists, you get the sense they are underdogs coming into this one, and they’ll need a more complete performance to get over the line.

A win over Dublin on the biggest stage would certainly come as a huge pre-championship boost for Fitzgerald’s side, though that certainly won’t come easy as the Sky Blues target an improvement of their record in the early-season competition.

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Whatever happens, the next chapter in this remarkable rivalry is sure not to disappoint.

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Division 2 final captains Aislinn Desmond of Kerry, left, and Shauna Ennis of Meath.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

The Division 2 finale, should also be an enthralling battle between two teams on the rise in Meath and Kerry, with promotion to the top-flight the all-important reward [throw-in 5pm, TG4].

The Royals are reigning All-Ireland intermediate champions after making it third time lucky in the Croke Park decider last December. More silverware and another promotion would be a huge boost and represent another significant step as they prepare for senior championship, having secured promotion from Division 3 in 2019.

Kerry, meanwhile, will be hoping for a return to the top tier after relegation from Division 1 in 2018 and a turbulent time off the field. Under Declan Quill and Darragh Long, they’re motoring nicely, and beat Meath by six points in the group stages.

That means little today, though. Anything could happen, especially with two star-studded forward lines going head-to-head.

The Division 3 and 4 finals take place on Sunday, with neighbours Laois and Kildare doing battle in Baltinglass for the former title [4pm], and the latter on the line as Leitrim and Louth face off in St Tiernach’s Park, Clones [2pm].

Both games are live on the Spórt TG4 YouTube Page.

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