WEEKEND DOUBLE FOR ORCHARD CAPTAIN
It was a weekend of double delight for Orchard captain Kelly Mallon as she led Armagh to victory in Croke Park on the back of being crowned LGFA Player of the Year at the inaugural Local Women Sport Awards the evening before.
Mallon couldn’t attend Friday’s black-tie banquet at Belfast’s Europa Hotel ahead of the big game but there was plenty to celebrate the next night after Armagh’s 4-9 to 2-10 victory over Laois in the NFL Division Two final.
Not being able to collect her award in person paled in comparison to the satisfaction of lifting a trophy in the famous stadium for the first time and ending Armagh’s six-year wait to return to the National League’s top flight.
Armagh had been beaten by Kerry – who continued their progression by winning Saturday’s Division One final against Galway – in the corresponding game last April but blew Laois away with a remarkable burst of four goals in the opening nine minutes.
Ace markswoman Aimee Mackin, just home from the All Stars tour to Texas a few days earlier, hit a quickfire hat-trick while Dromintee dynamo Aoife McCoy weighed in with 1-2 ahead of her wedding later this week.
McCoy’s impending nuptials notwithstanding, the Orchard outfit’s focus will quickly turn to next month’s defence of their provincial crown, with this year’s Ulster Senior Championship having a round robin format.
With Monaghan joining Tyrone from the year before in being relegated to the Intermediate tier, there are just three teams left in Senior, including Cavan and Donegal, who the orangewomen will replace in Division One next season.
Cavan didn’t fulfil their final fixture in Division Two due to a player strike while Donegal lost all seven league games in the first division this spring but Armagh will be expecting another tough tussle with their great rivals.
The other two teams get the provincial competition underway on Sunday week with Armagh meeting Donegal on May 7 and then facing Cavan seven days later, with the top two teams going through to the final at the end of next month.
Last May, Mallon landed a long-range equalising free with the last kick of injury-time before grabbing the winning goal with half a minute left in injury-time of the Clones showpiece against Donegal.
Those heroics were enough to earn her the nod from the LWS judging panel over Armagh Player of the Year McConville and All Star Aimee Mackin along with Antrim’s All Ireland Junior Championship-winning captain Cathy Carey.
Antrim manager Emma Kelly won the LGFA Coach of the Year award and it was a good weekend for the Saffrons as they finally got out of the NFL’s basement section for the first time in their history by beating Leitrim in Sunday’s Division Four final at Parnell Park.
There were no other local winners at the LWS Awards with Armagh LGFA Chairperson Sinead Reel missing out for the Backroom Champion title and Cullyhanna netballer Frances Keenan likewise in the Breakthrough category.
Both the Armagh gaelic footballers and Northern Ireland netballers predictably lost out to the history-making NI women’s soccer side for Team of the Year and Warriors skipper Caroline O’Hanlon wasn’t shortlisted for overall Sportswoman of the Year.
After making a cameo appearance for Armagh in Croke Park, the sole survivor from the Orchard’s first NFL Division Two title win in 2005 and captain on the only other occasion a decade later, O’Hanlon made her comeback from injury for Leeds Rhinos the next day.
Brought off the bench after the first quarter against Saracens Mavericks in front of thousands of fans at First Direct Arena, O’Hanlon helped Rhinos turn a six-goal deficit into a narrow lead entering the final quarter but they eventually lost by the agonising score of 53-52.
It was a Sunday of double disappointment for O’Hanlon as her Lisburn club Larkfield’s chances of reclaiming the NI Premier League title had ended earlier in the day with a 64-44 defeat to third-placed Kingsway in the long-serving skipper’s absence.
Another leading local Leah McGoldrick surprisingly missed out on being shortlisted for LWS Rugby Player of the Year on the back of her prolific try-scoring for Bath in the first half of the English Championship season after overcoming long-term injury issues.
Missing McGoldrick, who has been out of action again since the end of January, Bath’s hopes of reaching the Twickenham showpiece against Leicester Tigers later this month were ended by Sunday’s semi-final defeat to Cheltenham Tigers.
Ireland hooker Neve Jones was a worthy winner of the LWS Rugby Player of the Year award but she couldn’t collect it in person either due to being in Parma for Saturday’s Six Nations game which the girls in green lost 24-7 to Italy.
Hamiltonsbawn native Vicky Irwin, who had started the previous match against France just got the final few minutes off the bench but will be hoping for more involvement in what will be a daunting game against England at Musgrave Park in Cork this Saturday (2.15pm, BBC2).