A tenth meeting of Ulster’s top dogs

By Michael McMullan

THE more things change, the more they stay the same. Eight years may have passed, but it’s still Sleacht Néill and Loughgiel at loggerheads to become champions of Ulster.

Saturday’s clash in Newry will be the tenth meeting of the clubs with the Antrim champions searching for a first title since 2015 when they were five-point winners over an Emmet’s side on the first rung of the ladder towards All-Ireland glory.

From the All-Ireland winning team of 2017, seven players were in the Sleacht Néill starting 15 for their 3-12 to 2-6 over Swatragh in the Derry final last month.

The Davitt’s and Dunloy are progressing teams in Derry and Antrim respectively, but it’s the champions who still stand tallest.

“All the times we have played each other and we’d know each other very well…they were very tight matches” said Aoife Ní Chaiside, one of the seven players still on board.

“All teams change and evolve. You have played each other many times, there are players going out and new players coming in that you haven’t played against at all.”

Ní Chaiside sees the latest installment as just another game. It’s about walking before you run.

They never looked at Swatragh until their semi-final win and Loughgiel didn’t figure in the thoughts until EP Cassidy’s final whistle signalled an eighth Derry title in succession and a ninth in all.

“Now that it is Loughgiel, we will have to prepare ourselves both physically and mentally for that challenge,” she said, while highlighting the thrill from having to rise to the challenge of staying on top.

“You excel in that challenge…when we look at the games we‘ve lost we see what we can improve on and that’s what we like as camogs.

“It might work and it might not work, but you are looking at it to reflect where you go next.”

“You get a thrill to keep moving yourself and the team on while camogie is also evolving in the way it is played in terms of tactics and game-play so you can stay half a step ahead.”

Goalkeeper Jolene Bradley and Shannon Graham stepped away this season, with Therese Mellon on the injured list. On the other side, Siobhan Bradley and Gráinne Ní Chatháin have returned, with a host of younger players coming into the fold.

“Those playing before want to hand the jersey over to somebody who is going to do equally as well if not better,” Ní Chaiside explains of the Sleacth Néill evolution.

“That has been happening for a few years and we are lucky they have came through. They are inexperienced and there is a lot of work in coaching, with them also needing to buy into the team ethos.

“There is still a good bit of work to do to bring those players on and we have been able to do it. They are earning their right to come in and start in their positions, they have trained hard.

“It is great that they have the want to come in and push themselves. There is no better place to be doing that than Derry finals and Ulster finals.”

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