By Paul O'Neill
Galway might have struggled in this year's National Camogie League, but manager Tony Ward is happy they are ready for the defence of their All-Ireland crown.
On Saturday Galway will start their Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Championship campaign with a showdown against Wexford in Group 1 at Athenry.
It will be Galway's first competitive outing since they lost to Clare two months ago in a League play-off. That came after a dismal series of results in the regular part of the competition which saw them finish with just two wins, one of which was a walkover, while they suffered a shock defeat to Limerick.
But Ward does not read much into what happened in the League and says they are not prepared to give up the All-Ireland easily.
He said: "For sure we were disappointed with how the League went for us but I think it was understandable when you consider some factors.
"After the All-Ireland celebrations, we were about six weeks behind most other counties in beginning training, while we were away on a holiday too.
"However over the last month we have stepped up preparations for the Championship and I am satisfied we are ready for the challenges that lie ahead."
Besides last term, Galway's only other All-Ireland success came in 1996 when Ward was also in charge. He was the boss when they tried to retain the crown the following year, only to lose to Cork in the final, and thinks he has learned from the experience of that failed push for back-to-back crowns.
"After getting our hands on the first All-Ireland we got a little carried away and probably felt that plenty more would follow," recalled Ward.
"Unfortunately it did not work out like that, although we reached the two finals after the first one which we won. Regarding the 1997 final, we thought that we just had to turn up to win but Cork had other ideas.
"Certainly I learned from the experience of trying to defend the All-Ireland and I would like to think it can stand to me in the coming Championship."
It is a Championship that will not feature All-Star Therese Maher after it was announced in April that she had quit the inter-county scene with Galway. And Ward says it has been hard planning without Maher for the Championship.
He added: "Therese owed Galway nothing and was a fantastic servant for the county.
"While we sort of expected her to bow out, it has still been hard to get used to her not being around. Her departure has left us with a huge gap to fill but it has opened the door for other players to stake a claim for a spot in the team.
"We are fortunate that we have quite a talented squad and several players who might not have played much for the county at this level before have caught the eye in games and training this year."
Meanwhile, Ward predicts an open Championship this season.
"When you look at the sides involved, many are well capable of making the knockout stages," declared Ward.
"Wexford might not have done as well last year as they had in others but they still possess a hugely experienced and talented squad.
"You can say the same about Cork, who simply cannot be ruled out.
"Kilkenny have been there or thereabouts over the last five years with an improving team and they will be buoyed by having won the recent League.
"Clare did not do themselves justice in the League final and I think they can show it in the Championship.
"And then there is Offaly, who could count themselves unlucky in narrowly losing to Wexford in last year's All-Ireland quarter-finals.
"All in all it promises to be quite a competitive Championship where you cannot really expect any easy games. Once you get a victory you know you are well on the way to making the quarter-finals at the very least and that is all we are thinking about.
"We are not looking past the Wexford game and realise that now we are the holders, we are up there for all of the other sides to have a pop at."