April 27th, 2023


Richard Bullick

Crossmaglen legend Lauren McConville, Ballyhegan jack-in-the-box Grace Ferguson and teenage Armagh Harps prospect Emily Druse must surely constitute the smallest half back combo in adult inter-county football.

However, the Orchard’s diminutive triumvirate are far from being a weakness in the Armagh team hoping to clinch the title, trophy and accompanying promotion on offer for the winners of this Saturday’s NFL Division Two final against Laois at Croke Park (3pm, TG4).

Currently on the All Stars tour to Texas, where she stole the show in Sunday night’s game, experienced campaigner McConville is the fulcrum of a swashbuckling unit in which she is flanked by fellow compact powerhouse Druse and the terrier-like Ferguson.

The short-of-stature trio tackle like demons, swarming menacingly all over the opposition like pint-sized pests, but also love to pour forward with pace and purpose, enabling Armagh to turn defiant defence into dynamic attack at the flick of a switch.

With their sheer energy, enthusiasm, tenacity and determination, these three fiercely competitive players undoubtedly bring to mind the old adage about the size of the fight in the dog mattering more than the size of the dog in the fight.

When another vertically-challenged young Ulster sportswoman Neve Jones delivered a non-stop Player of the Match performance for Ireland in last season’s Six Nations, somebody memorably remarked the sturdy hooker had been ‘motoring like a mad yoke’ all evening!

This season’s Armagh half backs are cut from their same cloth and indeed, such is their physical courage, if one was to raid the Orchard cupboard for rugby recruits, both McConville and Druse would be high up the list of targets in spite of their size.

It was revealed recently that Grace and Emily were the two most popular names given to baby girls in Northern Ireland last year and perhaps it’s time more parents started calling their daughters Lauren in tribute to Armagh’s 2022 Player of the Year!

McConville’s superb performances for Armagh make it easy to forget that she only converted to centre half back from the forwards less than two years ago, since when two national All Star nominations have followed and the 28-year-old is a very influential figure in this team.

Little livewire Ferguson emerged as an Armagh regular in the autumn of 2020 and the irrepressible Druse, the only teenager in line to take the field from the off for the Orchard in Croke Park, has made her first six starts in the orange jersey this season.

It felt like there were at least three of Ferguson on the field for Queen’s when she captained them to victory over the University of Galway in this season’s O’Connor Cup quarter-finals and she has her Armagh starting spot well nailed down at this stage.

McConville has now played 87 Armagh matches without ever being injured or dropped and charismatic rising star Druse will be hoping to again get the nod from manager Shane McCormack in spite of fierce competition for places.

The equation will be eased a little if the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon, who was already lining out for Armagh before Druse was born, is ruled out by the shoulder injury she sustained playing British SuperLeague netball for Leeds Rhinos two Fridays ago.

O’Hanlon was controversially left out of Ronan Murphy’s team for last April’s NFL Division Two decider defeat to Kerry after playing for Manchester Thunder the previous evening, a strange selection especially with skipper Kelly Mallon not fit to start that day due to injury.

However, experienced campaigner Mallon will lead the team out on Sunday, having started all seven regular league games this season, and Armagh are considerably better equipped to cope without O’Hanlon now than they were 12 months ago.

That was the Orchard outfit’s first appearance at Croke Park in nearly a decade so most of their team then hadn’t played there before whereas only Louise Kenny and Druse of the likely line-up this Saturday are in that boat.

As they had done in the 2014 All Ireland Senior Championship quarter-final, Armagh hammered Laois in last year’s second division semi, though a much closer league game this season should ensure no Orchard complacency.

Armagh just won by the modest margin of five points when these teams met in a low-scoring game in the Athletic Grounds at the end of February, so McCormack’s women will be on their guard especially with that all-important promotion at stake.

AFLW-bound Erone Fitzpatrick is an important player for Laois but the current Ulster champions go into the contest as justifiably firm favourites, with a strong sense of momentum and confidence from winning all seven fixtures so far this season.

Armagh’s most recent NFL Division Two final victory came against Donegal in 2015, a decade after their first triumph when current assistant manager Denise Jordan (then Hagan) had the honour of captaining a team which included a 20-year-old O’Hanlon in midfield.

Goalkeeper Hagan was filling in as skipper because regular captain Bronagh O’Donnell had just returned from a trip to Australia with twin Alma and the pair only came off the bench as Armagh defeated Donegal 1-8 to 1-7 in Mullingar in 2005.

O’Hanlon was Orchard captain eight years ago when teenager Aimee Mackin won Player of the Match after scoring 2-5 as an Armagh team featuring Mallon, McConville, Aoife McCoy, Niamh Marley and Kenny beat Donegal 4-18 to 4-6 at Parnell Park.