When Westmeath’s senior camogie side take to the hallowed Croke Park turf for their All-Ireland premier junior championship final against Dublin on Sunday next (12pm), it will be a first for the entire panel.
Given the sheer amount of experience in the panel – names like Dinah Loughlin, Pamela Greville and Denise McGrath come to mind – manager Johnny Greville says that it’s “amazing to think they haven’t put one foot on the grass”.
For that reason, the Raharney man – who has been in charge of Westmeath’s senior camogie setup since last year – has put a lot of work into getting his charges ready for the cauldron of emotion that is GAA headquarters.
“It’s fantastic, but at the same time, you have to deal with it and make sure the emotions don’t overawe them,” Johnny said, during last Friday’s pre-final ‘meet and greet’ with local camogie fans in TEG Cusack Park. “It’s important that we go out and stick to our plan.
“We’ve gone through things in fine detail over the last few weeks, but we’ve put a fair bit of work into ensuring that the girls can cope with the occasion.
“The plus factor for us is that it’s the first game; it’s at 12pm, and you’re not waiting around till 4pm. When you’re on first, you’re up and at it, and you don’t have time to think about it.
“You know, there is going to be emotion, and there are going to be mistakes made on the day, but it’s about dealing with them and making sure they’re not the overriding factor on the day. You can always recover, don’t look back and don’t look forward, think about the next ball.”
Getting to Croker was the target at the start of the year for Greville and the Westmeath girls. “We should have done it last year,” said the manager, looking back ruefully on the semi-final defeat to Carlow.
Getting past Armagh in this year’s corresponding fixture allowed his troops to breathe “a huge sigh of relief”.
Looking back on a relatively successful season, Greville said that a sobering 0-17 to 0-5 league defeat to Cork in a rain-soaked St Loman’s last February was a “huge learning curve” for Westmeath.
They put in an impressive shift against Galway, and would have won but for a late goal from the Westerners in Pearse Stadium.
A very positive Division 2 campaign was the springboard for a tremendous crack at the Leinster intermediate camogie championship. In that competition, Westmeath upset the odds to dismantle Wexford and Kilkenny, before they eventually lost out to Laois in the final.
“Those wins really stood to us going into the All-Irelands, and we had a couple of handy wins against Wicklow, Waterford and Offaly, before getting across the line against Dublin, and then beating Armagh.
As for Dublin – who Westmeath defeated by a point in the championship’s group stage – Greville is expecting a fierce battle between two evenly matched teams.
Since the sides met in August, Dublin have benefited from the regrading of a number of unused senior players. However, Westmeath were also understrength when they saw off the Metropolitans in Parnells.
“They had great movement, height and physicality,” Greville said of the Dubs. “They had a lot of top class attributes. The goalkeeper had a huge puckout, they’re brilliant from long range frees. Their full forward, Aoife Bolger, scored 2-2 on the day.
“They have threats all over the field, and we feel we have the same. And we were missing a few players on the day ourselves, but they have strength in depth like us. I think they don’t fear us, like we don’t fear them.
“The girls have come on mentally, physically and skilfully throughout the year, and we have a very versatile panel with a great balance between youth and experience.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re concentrating on ourselves and our own game. But we’re not being naïve and totally dismissing the opposition as regards preparation.
“We have to do our homework and tick those boxes, but generally when it comes to finals, if you get your own house right, you won’t be too far off the mark.”
Greville is delighted to have a fully fit panel of 26 ready for the final, and gives huge credit to his backroom team of Jimmy Greville, Jim Bob Baker, Frank Mullen (selectors), John Gilligan (strength and conditioning), Tomas Mount (stats) and Keith Begley (performance) for having the panel so well prepared.
The former Raharney hurling boss also praised the powers that be in camogie.
“We wouldn’t have the setup we have without the Camogie Association. They fought their corner with the WGPA and went into Croke Park and Dáil Éireann, and they fought to get grants. Every county has got a grant towards sports science, and it’s been fantastic,” the former Westmeath hurler remarked.
“It’s really given us that extra edge, because through finance or whatever else, these things weren’t available to us before now.
“But now we’re able to increase it to the maximum, because we’re getting the support from the Camogie Association, and from our own county board.”
On the field, the key thing for his panel of players, Greville insists, is to leave Croke Park on Sunday having no regrets.
“It’s a big occasion,” he continued. “You see all the kids here today – if it does good for Westmeath camogie, it’ll definitely propel it to the next level.
“At club level, there’s a lot of brilliant players. The U16s won an All-Ireland last year, and we won a Minor ‘B’ this year.
“The players are there and the future is bright, but it’s really important that we go out and perform, and if we bring the cup home, it’ll really push it on further.
“Finals are so hard to win, especially when you go to the ultimate arena.
“I’ve been involved in plenty of finals here in Cusack Park as a player. We [Raharney] were in a Leinster intermediate [club] final in St Loman’s back in 2006 against Ardclough, and we were beaten by a point. I was captain myself, and I have massive regrets about losing that game.
“We had an opportunity to go on and do something great, like Clonkill did a couple of years later, winning an intermediate All-Ireland in Croke Park. But we didn’t do it.”
“I’ll be saying one thing to the girls – don’t have any regrets come Sunday night. For some of them, it may be their last opportunity.
“We’re hoping to go out and perform, and I think that if we go out and perform, we’ll win.”