April 27th, 2023


Richard Bullick

Armagh skipper Kelly Mallon relinquished her ABC Sportswoman of the Year title last Wednesday but the 33-year-old would happily swap that accolade for leading her Orchard county team to a trophy triumph in Croke Park this Saturday.

Ronan McCormack’s women are hot favourites to claim the NFL Division Two title and accompanying promotion to the top flight after a six-season absence when they tackle Laois at headquarters (3pm, TG4).

The orangewomen were beaten by Kerry in the corresponding game last April when captain Mallon wasn’t fit to start on her return from a broken leg, with her absence compounded by the bad decision to leave out the even more experienced Caroline O’Hanlon.

O’Hanlon’s participation this time is in doubt due to a shoulder injury sustained playing British SuperLeague netball for Leeds Rhinos but Armagh should have enough firepower to see off the reigning All Ireland Intermediate champions even if the 38-year-old doesn’t play.

Although Laois only lost by 0-10 to 0-5 in the regular league game against Armagh at the Athletic Grounds, they aren’t as strong opponents as the Kingdom women, who have gone on to reach Saturday’s Division One decider against Galway (5pm).

“Laois showed when we played them a few weeks ago that they’re very tough opposition and deserve to be where they are.  They’re a really defensive team but they do break quite fast as well so it should be an exciting game in Croke Park and we’re really looking forward to the challenge,” says Mallon.

Armagh go into this final with real momentum, having enjoyed seven victories from seven matches so far under new manager McCormack, the former Kildare goalkeeper so appear well-placed to go one better than a year ago.

“We have had a really good league campaign, with really consistent performances throughout, but we reached the final last year as well (and lost) so it’s just about taking that next step now and getting over the line,” insists the Orchard captain.

Unlike last year, when Armagh were gracing Croke Park for the first time in almost a decade, most of this Saturday’s team will have had a taste of playing on the hallowed turf, with teenager Emily Druse and Louise Kenny the possible exceptions.

“Playing in Croke Park is overwhelming.  No matter how much you try and play it down, it is overwhelming when you get there for your first occasion.  I think having had that experience last year will certainly stand to us coming into this final.”

There is fierce competition for places in several areas and McCormack has shared out the game-time during the first phase of the league, blooding a number of fresh faces and developing squad depth.

“The management have done a good job in rotating and giving girls opportunity.  I think that will stand to us when it really matters, so coming into the home straight in matches we have girls to bring on and finish the game for us.

“Younger girls like Maeve Lennon and Maeve Ferguson who have come in this season have been getting minutes under their belt and gaining the experience playing at this level is really important.

“County football is more physical and you’ve also less time on the ball.  Getting game-time will help players adapt to the standard of football and become comfortable with the patterns we’re trying to implement as a team moving forward.

There are exciting challenges ahead, with Armagh going for an unprecedented fourth Ulster title triumph in a row and also targeting All Ireland glory but for now it’s all about securing silverware and an overdue return to the National League’s elite level.

“I suppose when we look back to last season, there are a couple of wee things we might change going into the final this time and hopefully that will settle us a bit more,” muses Mallon, who scored six points when Armagh beat Donegal in the 2015 Division Two final.

Player of the Match Aimee Mackin, who hit 2-5 that day as an 18-year-old, has been on the All Stars tour to Texas this past week with Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville but both influential figures came through Sunday night’s exhibition match in Austin unscathed.

Outgoing ABC Sportswoman of the Year Mallon and Armagh team-mate Niamh Marley, who was also shortlisted, missed out on the top prize at the Seagoe Hotel last Wednesday to bowler Chloe Wilson who competed for Team NI in last summer’s Commonwealth Games.


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