April 27th, 2023


Richard Bullick

Captain Grace Ferguson will be hoping to emulate former Orchard hero Sinead McCleary by lifting the O’Connor Cup for just the second time in the history of Queen’s University in Mayo this weekend.

McCleary captained a Queen’s team managed by the then Armagh gaffer James Daly to an historic success in 2013 and, a decade on, the Belfast side booked their place at finals weekend with a stirring victory over the University of Galway in Dublin last Tuesday night.

There were six Armagh representatives in that victorious squad but this time the Orchard contingent is even larger with an incredible eight players starting against the Galway girls at Abbotstown, where Queen’s defied the odds by winning 0-16 to 1-10.

Mark Doran’s women will face an even tougher test in this Friday’s second semi-final (3.30pm) at the Air Dome, which is the centrepiece of Connacht GAA’s Centre of Excellence near Ballyhaunis, when they face defending champions University of Limerick (UL).

In Saturday’s showpiece (4.15pm) at the same iconic venue, the winners will face whoever emerges from Friday’s earlier derby battle between Dublin City University (DCU) and Technological University Dublin (TUD).

TUD secured the last spot in the top tier O’Connor Cup semi-finals with an astonishing 7-5 to 3-16 victory over University College Cork (UCC) in an epic encounter last Wednesday night, though the previous evening’s game was hardly dull albeit lower-scoring.

Ballyhegan jack-in-the-box Ferguson really led by example, wearing No 6 on her back but repeatedly popping up everywhere in a Player of the Match performance to the extent that the opposing team must have thought there were about three of her!

Donegal’s Susanne White top-scored with 0-7 for Queen’s though that tally contained two frees whereas Silverbridge forward Niamh Reel’s six points all came from play a few hours after sitting the final exam of her Medicine degree!

Clann Eireann’s Cait Towe kicked two first half points, one a magnificent effort from wide on the left, against the university where she had been an undergraduate and the other Queen’s score came from young Armagh Harps star Emily Druse on the other flank.

Both of those players had clubmates called Megan in the Queen’s side, McCann of Clann Eireann completing the half forward line and Harps player McShane lining out at corner back for the team in black.

Brianna Mathers of Shane O’Neills, confident following a good outing for Armagh against Tyrone in the National League, was in nets while the only Orchard representative not in the current county panel, Carrickcruppen’s Ciara Garvey, wore the No 5 jersey.

Queen’s have lost last season’s midfield pairing of new Tyrone captain Aoibhinn McHugh and NI netballer Frances Keenan along with the latter’s fellow Buttercrane Championship All Star Meabh McCambridge from Clann Eireann and Armagh goalkeeper Anna Carr.

That contingent left big boots to fill and Doran’s hand was weakened further by the injury-enforced absence of Fermanagh forward Blaithin Bogue, who is normally such an influential figure for Queen’s and may yet bolster them for finals weekend if fit to feature.

Cullyhanna ace Keenan’s place in midfield was taken by another member of the Northern Ireland netball squad, the still uncapped Ana Mulholland, and the wiry 18-year-old Glenavy fresher showed her worth with a good display in midfield alongside Bogue’s sister Cadhla.

In addition to the eight Armagh representatives, there is a further local connection in that Lucy McAlary from Moy, who came on as a sub against UG, captained St Catherine’s College Under 16s to their historic All Ireland triumph back in 2019.

Reel is the only member of the Orchard contingent who has been to finals weekend with Queen’s before, and that was just for the – since scrapped – subsidiary Shield final back in 2019 when she was a first year student.

However, Ferguson, Towe and Druse are all currently regular starters for Armagh while age group handball world champion McCann has valuable big occasion experience to draw upon from her other sport.

Towe, McCann, Druse, McShane and Garvey have all tasted Orchard Senior Championship success with their respective clubs, Ferguson and Reel have won Intermediate titles with Ballyhegan and Mathers an Armagh Division One title in the colours of Shane O’Neills.

All but one of the Armagh group have won Ulster Schools All Stars in the past – the exception, McShane, focused more on swimming in which she became an Ulster Schools champion – and Towe captained Ulster Schools to an interpro title triumph.

Both for the sake of Queen’s this weekend and Armagh going forward, it is important that Doran’s side don’t suffer from any inferiority complex given the pronounced dominance of the star-studded southern sides in the O’Connor Cup over recent years.

They showed significant character and belief in coming through their semi-final as underdogs, weathering some turbulent times when it felt like luck might not be with them on the evening.

UG scored the opening point after just 17 seconds but Towe equalised and Reel levelled up again with a sweet left-footed point after an attack which featured a wonderful run by Mulholland after Druse had won a great turnover.

Reel was off-target with a free but White put Queen’s in front for the first time by converting one from close-range and Towe followed up with that monster effort followed almost immediately by Reel chipping over the bar.

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A point by Reel among three from White gave the northerners the luxury of a five-point lead but UG were awarded a penalty right on the stroke of half-time which was netted to leave just two in it at the break.

That appeared a considerable blow and Queen’s suffered frustrations early in the second half, firstly when the referee didn’t keep playing advantage as Towe looked like breaking clear – White kicked the free – and then in disallowing a goal from McCann.

The teams had traded points just before that, Reel getting the Queen’s score from a ridiculously narrow angle, and UG raised two of the next three white flags to make it 0-12 to 1-7 by the 40th minute.

A UG goal late in the third quarter was disallowed for an over-carrying offence and accompanying claims for a penalty rejected and another free from White edged Queen’s three clear shortly afterwards.

The dynamic Druse threaded the needle with an important point from an almost impossibly acute angle on the right and Reel then put Queen’s five ahead but this fascinating contest was far from over.

The Galway women notched up three points in four minutes to leave Queen’s vulnerable to a winning goal and White was short with a free which would have eased the nerves had it gone over.

It was tense stuff but there was one brilliant turnover from captain fantastic Ferguson who was also involved several times in the lead-up to Reel kicking a huge point as the game entered injury-time and no further scores ensued in a frenetic finale.

An emotional Ferguson was grinning like a Cheshire cat while choking back tears of joy in her post-match interview, when she declared herself “just so, so proud of everyone’s performance – everyone put in a massive shift and we’ll enjoy the journey home!”

Turning to the daunting task ahead in the semi-final, she said: “UL are class, the players they have are phenomenal but we’re happy to go in as underdogs ago, work hard and be hungry and just see what happens.”

HEC finals weekend will be a family affair as Grace’s younger sister Maeve Ferguson along with Armagh team-mate Dearbhla Coleman are part of the Ulster University Jordanstown  (UUJ) team which will be contesting Friday’s second tier Giles Cup semi-final.

Having thumped Trinity College 8-15 to 2-4 in their own backyard last week, UUJ will face DCU Seconds (1pm) for a place in Saturday’s decider (2pm) against Maynooth University or MTU Kerry, a match while be streamed live like the Yoplait O’Connor Cup semis and final.

There was disappointment for Crossmaglen’s Aislinn McMahon as her St Mary’s University College team lost out against ATU Donegal after extra-time in Convoy last Wednesday night for a place in the semis of the third tier Giles Cup.

Some 2200 players have taken place in this season’s HEC Championships, for a total of 64 teams from 32 different institutions, with the three lowest level finals scheduled for tomorrow (Wed) to coincide with International Women’s Day.