Kilkenny's Claire Phelan alongside Cork's Aisling Thompson ahead of this weekend's Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Senior Camogie decider
Kilkenny's Claire Phelan alongside Cork's Aisling Thompson ahead of this weekend's Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Senior Camogie decider

Kilkenny's Claire Phelan appreciative of full health ahead of All-Ireland Camogie Final

By Paul Keane

Claire Phelan has experienced it all in Croke Park; the cheers and the tears.

In over 10 years as a Kilkenny senior, she's won All-Ireland finals, two of them, and lost plenty more, five in all.

A moment she'll never forget is at the full-time whistle in 2020 when, in front of an empty Croke Park at the height of the pandemic, they beat off Galway to reign supreme again. The screams of excitement echoing throughout an empty, giant cauldron.

A weird way to celebrate for sure.

'Yeah, it was, but I suppose we were just happy to be able to play at the time,' said the ultra experienced defender. 'We weren't thinking about anything else as such but it was strange, it was kind of eerie up there with no-one in the stands or anything like that. Still, very special and we're delighted now that we can have family and friends back this time around and hopefully we can give them something to celebrate.'

Kilkenny will play Cork in Sunday's Glen Dimplex All-Ireland decider and it won't be just the presence of supporters and the warmer early-August weather that will mark it as different from that December 2020 win. The Kilkenny team itself will be much changed with seven starters from that day unavailable now for various reasons.

Four players - Anna Farrell, Anne Dalton, Davina Tobin and Collette Dormer - have retired while Meighan Farrell took the year out.

The two that have been chiefly in Phelan's thoughts this week are the Doyle sisters, Kellyann and Aoife.

The Piltown pair both started for Kilkenny the last time the sides met, in the National League in March, but are currently recovering from cruciate knee ligament injuries.

Defender Kellyann suffered the setback early in that game while attacker Aoife was struck down against Limerick early in the Championship.

Agonisingly, it was the third time in five years that Kellyann was rocked by a cruciate injury - and bizarrely against Cork each time.

'Poor Kellyann, blow after blow,' lamented 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 knows it sounds a little cheesy but it really does make her even more appreciative of her full health and for weeks like this.

'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,' said the former back to back All-Star.

'We're just delighted to be there. There was a lot thrown at us this year between injuries and players leaving and whatever else along with that. So it just meant a lot to get there. That was our goal at the start of the year, we wanted to get to an All-Ireland final and to do it is great.'

Phelan, a primary school teacher in Clara, Grace Walsh, Denise Gaule, Katie Power and Miriam Walsh are among a core group of experienced players guiding Kilkenny through the current 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.

They've faced off in four finals alone since 2014 and clashed in last year's semi-final too.

'There have been plenty of meetings over the last few years,' said Phelan. 'We've been on both sides of the results so we know how easy they can slip away and how quick these games actually go by.

'You really have to be tuned in and concentrating on the games 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-finals, 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,' she said.

'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.'