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Claire Phelan and Kilkenny embracing another final challenge – The Irish Times


It’s only two seasons since Kilkenny were last crowned All-Ireland camogie champions – or 20 months to be exact – but the cast around Claire Phelan has changed considerably.

From the starting team that December evening of 2020, in an empty Croke Park, Anna Farrell, Anne Dalton, Davina Tobin and Collette Dormer have all retired, Meighan Farrell is away travelling now while the Doyle sisters, Kellyann and Aoife, are sidelined with injuries.

Retirements and sabbaticals are all part of the gig but it’s the absence of the Doyles for Sunday’s Glen Dimplex All-Ireland decider against Cork that seems so terribly unfair to experienced defender Phelan.

The Piltown duo are both recovering from cruciate knee ligament injuries suffered within weeks of each other earlier this season.

It was the third of her career in Kellyann’s case and, grimly with Sunday’s decider in mind, all three injuries occurred in games against Cork. The most recent one was at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in March when the sides drew 1-8 apiece in the National League.

Two months later, Aoife suffered the same injury against Limerick in the championship.

Sport, inevitably, moves on and it was Laura Murphy, Kellyann’s replacement after just 13 minutes of that league game with Cork, who struck the crucial 1-1 for Kilkenny in their recent All-Ireland semi-final win over Galway.

Still, if Kilkenny are successful on Sunday then Phelan will raise a toast during the celebrations to absent friends.

“Poor Kellyann, blow after blow,” said Phelan. “She did hers earlier in the year against Cork. And then Aoife did the same against Limerick. It’s hugely tough on both of them but they’re brilliant, they’re at every training session, they’re on the bus, they’re tipping around still and it does make a difference to have them there, chatting away to girls.

“But you’d just be devastated for them, the amount they put into it. Laura Norris as well, she’s had a foot injury, it’s ongoing, but she’s back now thankfully, running every night and she’s doing everything she can to get back. You can just see how much it means to all of them.”

Phelan gets that it sounds a little cheesy but it really does make her extremely grateful for the position she finds herself in now, counting down the days until the final.

“We have the opportunity that they don’t, we have the opportunity to get out on the pitch and play so we’ll do everything we can because they’d love to have that opportunity as well,” she said.

“I’ve been lucky myself, I haven’t had too many injuries but we all know what it’s like when you’re not able to play and you’d give anything to play. We will definitely have them in our minds the whole time and it will be a driving force because we can see what they’re doing off the pitch to get back right again, it will definitely be a driving force for us.”

Phelan, on the panel for over a decade, Grace Walsh, Denis Gaule and Miriam Walsh are among a core group of experienced players guiding Kilkenny through the period of transition.

It’s a case of so far, so good, though as much as things change they also stay pretty much the same; Kilkenny v Cork in a national decider.

“There have been plenty of meetings over the last few years,” said Phelan, eyeing the four finals between the counties since 2014 and last year’s semi-final.

“We’ve been on both sides of the results so we know how easy they can slip away and how quickly these games actually go by. You really have to be tuned in and concentrating on the game and just have yourself totally ready and in the best possible shape you can be.”

Phelan was at Croke Park for the men’s final and felt a mixture of pride and disappointment as Brian Cody’s last stand ended with a gutsy defeat to Limerick. On the day of the camogie semi-final, Cody then called it quits.

“Brian Cody made our childhoods for a lot of us, we got to experience September every year nearly with All-Irelands, which is something special,” said Phelan, a primary school teacher in Clara along with Cats’ defender Paddy Deegan.

“It’s nearly why Kilkenny hurling and camogie is as good as it is now, because young kids were growing up with that All-Ireland every year nearly which was amazing when you think about it.”

Going one better than Cody’s crew is the challenge this weekend.

“We’re just delighted to be there. There was a lot thrown at us this year between injuries and players leaving and whatever else, so it has meant a lot to get to this stage,” said Phelan.

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