If one of Saturday’s senior championship finalists was predictable before the action got underway, the other certainly wasn’t.
Indeed, the paths taken by both holders — and favourites — Geraldines and 2017 runners-up St. Bride’s couldn’t have been more different.
Whereas the girls in green cruised to a third consecutive decider, negotiating what appeared to be, on paper, the more challenging group, with four points their most slender margin of victory, Bride’s have thrillingly defied expectation in deservedly booking a showpiece berth.
A round one win against Stabannon Parnells preceded a late, if merited, smash and grab defeat of Roche Emmets. Although, in their next game, they shipped a huge loss to St. Kevin’s/Hunterstown Rovers, which logic suggested would derail their campaign.
And yet they played some perfect football in successive ‘do or die’ affairs, pipping St. Patrick’s to top spot in group two before edging St. Mochta’s by a single point in an absorbing semi-final, where victory tasted as sweet as a ripe punnet of strawberries.
Those contests ought to stand to Fra Fagan’s troops, but, by contrast, the straightforwardness of Gers’ passage through can hardly be used as a stick to beat their pedigree with. They have just been so much better and shown class that their opponents dispossessed.
They’re arguably stronger than 12 months ago, when they landed a maiden crown, and with that first success stitched to their honours’ board, their tag as the ‘nearly team’ of Louth LGFA ebbed clear.
The aforementioned additional strength is in the shape of the back-from-injury Gemma McCrave, her standing at No6 having allowed captain and powerhouse Lauren McFaul to show career-best form at midfield. Holly Lambe-Sally, a breakthrough player for Louth this year, has had a very consistent championship following her addition to last year’s starting combination.
But notwithstanding the growth of several others, Gers remain reliant on Rebecca Carr for both scores and momentum. Though the All-Ireland winner will have stiff competition, particularly in the form of Ailish Noonan, in Stabannon.
Bride’s, themselves, are good enough to cause Gers a multitude of problems; they’re much improved from the teams’ one-sided league meeting in the summer.
The McArdle sisters, Bronagh and Emma, are elite-level material who’ve played so well post-lockdown, while the Fagan siblings and Amy McNally pose threats as both scorers and link players.
It could even be argued that Bride’s have a more clinical, dangerous and dynamic offence than the champions, whose core is built on defensive solidity. Therefore, the battle at the other end of the pitch could sway the title.
In that department, Gers have Ciara and Abbi O’Connor, along with experienced winger Lisa McCabe, to go with lively flankers Emma Gartland, Victoria Fee and Louise Corcoran.
Rebecca Hilliard is a sound full-back for Bride’s, mind, with Caoimhe Hoey a driving force from centre-half. And given the number of medals won previously by Karen Gogarty and Ciara Laverty, Brides’ defence won’t lack for intensity or organisation.
All things considered, a tight encounter is in prospect. One in which both outfits will have a clear motive. Expect Gers’ title protection to receive its sternest breach bid yet and for little to be in the difference entering the latter stages.
Brides will be driven by the pain of 2017, but the contents of Gers’ bench could well outweigh that variable in the grander scheme. With Helen McEneaney and Sandra Neary among those to come in, the cup may retain its McGeough Park residence.