By Kieran Lynch
DERRY are back at the semi-final stage of the All-Ireland Intermediate Championship for the second straight year, with Kilkenny standing between them and a trip to Croke Park.
However, earlier in the season, the Oakleaf County must have been doubting whether or not they would get back to the final four after their league campaign didn’t go as hoped.
But a frank and honest conversation about what went wrong changed the course of their season, according to joint-captain Aoife Ní Chaiside.
“We had a topsy-turvy league campaign and were beaten by Meath in the last game which meant we missed out on promotion,” she said.
“We were very disappointed after that, and we had to regroup. So we got together, sat down and talked about what we had to do to improve going forward and into the championship.
“I think it was very important that we did that, and it was a turning point in our season. Everything was laid out in front of us, and everybody has pulled together since then.”
It’s hard to read into Derry’s All-Ireland group, as they came through three straightforward wins, but Ní Chaiside says that the team are tracking their performance levels and their conversion rates to see progress.
“We had three comfortable enough matches in the group stage, but it was about our performances and being happy with what we were able to do with our conversion rates,” she said.
“Our mindsets, our support play and our work rate have improved in our championship campaign compared to our league campaign.
“I suppose that we’re more comfortable playing with each other, we have more belief in each other and want to get the best out of each other.
“Everyone is fully committed to what we’re doing. The intensity at training has lifted and we’re pushing each other on.”
In the last four, they will meet Kilkenny, who Ní Chaiside regards as an unknown quantity, but with the Cats having claimed group stage wins over both of last year’s All-Ireland finalists Galway and Cork, they will provide Derry with their sternest test of the campaign by far.
“We’re coming into the unknown a little bit, but we know that it’s going to be a huge challenge,” she said.
“We know how they have done in the group, and how they have been progressing, so we have a little bit of homework done on them. Hopefully we can bring our own game plan on Saturday.”
The semi-final stage was as far as Derry got last year as they were beaten by Cork, and it is up to PJ O’Mullan’s side to learn their lessons from that day.
“In that game against Cork we had a lot of the possession but our conversion rate was poor, and that came back to bite us,” said Ní Chaiside.
“A lot of our starting players from that game have actually left the panel, and we have a lot of girls who are in their first year at Senior. So, we have a mix of experience and new faces, and I think that’s a good thing.
“We realise that this is a big match, so we have to manage the nerves, prepare ourselves mentally, and hopefully go that step further this year and reach an All-Ireland final,” she added.