By Paul O'Neill
Cork captain Anna Geary has hailed the impressive strides made by Offaly in becoming regulars in the knockout stages of the All-Ireland Camogie Championship.
Offaly made their debut at senior level in the Championship in 2011 and progressed from the group phase for the first time the following year when they went as far as the semi-finals.
The Faithful County got to the quarter-finals last season and they will feature at that stage again on Saturday when Cork will be their opponents at the Gaelic Grounds.
And Geary paid tribute to Offaly for how they have adapted so well to playing at the top level in such a relatively short space of time.
She admitted: "Offaly have been a revelation since they moved up from the intermediate grade and how well they have done should be an inspiration for other counties to try and do the same.
"They have an excellent structure in place for their squad and can call on some superbly talented players.
"Offaly are strong and athletic and are fantastic at running with the ball. I think they have benefited from playing against the likes of Kilkenny and Wexford in Leinster in recent years and have come on a lot since starting off as a senior side.
"Clare have also improved over the last few years and in general there is a more even standard at this level, which is certainly good for the game.
"Not too long ago it was not particularly hard to predict which teams would be in the All-Ireland final before the Championship started but now it is more open and hopefully more sides will come to the fore in the years ahead too."
"It is a terrific honour to be taking part in the Rose of Tralee and of course it will be a chance to put camogie in the spotlight"
Cork missed out on automatic qualification for this year's Liberty Insurance All-Ireland semi-finals after they failed to finish top of Group 1.
The 24-times champions had to settle for a spot in the quarter-finals after finishing second in the table. Cork won two of their three games – against Dublin and Galway – but their prospects of claiming first place were dented by a reverse at the hands of Wexford.
But Geary says the main thing was that Cork did enough to make it into the knockout part of the Championship.
"Heading into the first three games in the Championship we were naturally aiming to go straight into the semi-finals but the main target was just to get out of the group," said Geary, who won the All-Ireland Club title with Cork outfit Milford in March.
"While we started off well with a defeat of Dublin, the loss to Wexford in our next game effectively cost us a chance of taking first position.
"We began poorly against Wexford and while we rallied, unfortunately we could not catch them.
"Then we finished up by beating last year's All-Ireland winners Galway and that meant a lot to us as it gave us a boost heading into the quarter-finals.
"Now, though, it is all about whether we can produce the goods on the day against Offaly to get into the last four.
"There are no second chances and that adds an extra edge to the game. Knowing you cannot afford to lose is what Championship camogie is really all about and we are looking forward to this challenge."
Geary has been juggling her camogie commitments recently with preparing for the Rose of Tralee, where she will represent Cork next week.
However while it has all added up to a hectic schedule for her, she has not had a problem coping with the various demands.
She concluded: "For sure it has been busy for me over the last few weeks with my camogie and getting ready for the Rose of Tralee but it has not been a difficulty.
"Last year I had plenty on my plate too as I was studying for college examinations at a time when I had camogie games and training so really it is nothing new to be occupied so much.
"This week I am concentrating on the Offaly game and I am very much the Cork captain. But once it is over I will be thinking more of the Rose of Tralee and doing my best for Cork – especially all of the other Cork finalists.
"It is a terrific honour to be taking part in one of the biggest annual events in the country and of course it will be a chance to put camogie in the spotlight some more too."
Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Camogie Senior Championship quarter-finals:
Clare v Galway (Gaelic Grounds, 4pm)
Cork v Offaly (Gaelic Grounds, 2pm)
TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship qualifiers second round:
Cavan v Laois (Blakestown, 3.45pm)
Mayo v Westmeath (Pearse Park, 2.15pm)
Monaghan v Tyrone (Pearse Park, 4pm)