June 29th, 2023



Richard Bullick

Dethroned Ulster champions Armagh got their All Ireland bid up and running by returning to winning ways in Portlaoise on Saturday after withstanding another spirited comeback by a Laois side they had already beaten twice this season.

The visitors had built a double-digit lead inside the first half hour at O’Moore Park but it took an injury-time goal from an acute angle by Aoife McCoy to put the result beyond doubt in this repeat of April’s NFL Division Two final.

On that occasion, Armagh had netted four times in the opening nine minutes in Croke Park, including an Aimee Mackin hat-trick, but only won by the same margin of five points that had separated these sides in February’s regular league game at the Athletic Grounds.

They took the field at the weekend without ace markswoman Mackin, who had been injured in last month’s Ulster final when a disappointing defeat by underdogs Donegal dashed Orchard hopes of being crowned provincial champions for a fourth year running.

Others stepped up in the prolific forward’s absence with the Orchard outfit’s first five scores coming from five different players before Mackin’s replacement in the starting team, Niamh Reel, struck for Armagh’s opening goal midway through the first half.

That made it 1-5 to 0-1 and, when Blaithin Mackin kicked a point from distance shortly after Caitriona O’Hagan had played McCoy in for her first goal, Armagh led by 11 points with 27 minutes gone.

Although hosts Laois responded well with the last three scores of the opening period, it still felt that the orangewomen weren’t likely to be seriously troubled by last season’s All Ireland Intermediate title winners.

However, Mo Nerney gave Laois a lifeline by scoring a goal when she should have been in the sinbin for taking her frustration at missing a straightforward free out on her fellow All Stars tourist Lauren McConville.

But the 2022 All Ireland Intermediate Player of the Year got away with her indiscipline and hit the Orchard net within 30 seconds of play resuming after Armagh goalkeeper Anna Carr had made a brilliant initial save with her feet.

Teenager O’Hagan hit back straight away with a point and both Eve Lavery and McCoy raised white flags in the following few minutes to put Armagh eight ahead towards the end of the third quarter.

With the Orchard crew well in front at that stage, the introduction of Aimee Mackin midway through the second half was welcome confirmation of the 26-year-old’s return to fitness, though for once she didn’t get on the scoresheet.

Instead, Laois scored 1-2 in a four-minute purple patch with a Mo Nerney free and Sarah-Anne Fitzgerald point sandwiching a superb left-footed finish high into the net by Katie Donoghue, leaving just a single goal between the teams.

Shane McCormack had to turn to the squad’s longest-serving player Niamh Marley, absent from the starting team due to her Irish rugby sevens commitments as she pursues selection for next summer’s Paris Olympics, to steady the ship.

The experienced powerhouse, whose younger sister Catherine played no part in Portlaoise due to injury, had a positive impact and her surging run led to Lavery putting the favourites four clear with a well-taken point after a return pass from Niamh Coleman.

Clann Eireann’s Coleman had one of her best games in the orange jersey while Ballyhegan’s Lavery scored three points in putting a disappointing afternoon at Owenbeg behind her.

McCoy showed her fierce commitment in getting back to help the tenacious Emily Druse make an important turnover soon afterwards and then in injury-time she had the energy to support a blistering breakout by Aimee Mackin as Laois threw everyone forward.

Although forced wide of the posts, McCoy somehow slotted past the goalkeeper from an acute angle on the right to give Armagh an unassailable lead even though there were a few more minutes of injury-time culminating in Blaithin Mackin missing a free from long-range.

The 2022 AFLW winner with Melbourne Demons was on setpiece duty because skipper Kelly Mallon had just given way to Ballyhegan’s Blathnaid Hendron at the end of an afternoon which brought her three points, two from frees.

Mallon had opened the scoring with her first free inside 60 seconds after Coleman won the throw-in and released Reel, who came infield and found McCoy, who sent centre half back McConville bursting through on goal.

Fitzgerald quickly levelled but Armagh got their noses in front for a second time through Reel, who started and confidently finished a move which also featured the Harps pair of Druse and Mallon.

Both teams coughed up possession too much during the opening quarter, and at times it felt more like an Armagh hangover from the Ulster final loss rather than the hoped-for response to that shattering defeat.

Shauna Grey had a shot blocked after a great run by her Dromintee clubmate McCoy but Armagh got their third point when Blaithin Mackin had a shot well saved but played the resulting 45 low to the latter and took the return pass to drill over the Laois bar.

Less than a minute later, Crossmaglen’s McConville, who hadn’t been able to make many of her familiar raids in the Ulster final, drove over from an acute angle to the right of the posts on one of numerous forays forward at O’Moore Park.

A great tackle by Druse won a turnover and Lavery pointed after initially dropping the ball before a very well-taken goal by Reel was a reminder of how well-off Armagh are for forwards that the Silverbridge girl seldom starts.

Carr was safe as houses under several Laois shots that dropped short and McCambridge showcased her fantastic full back credentials by getting out in front of her opponent to cut out threatening balls on several occasions.

Mo Nerney kicked a free which was cancelled out by a similar setpiece conversion by Mallon and then Armagh struck for their second goal, a deft finish from McCoy after Lavery won the Laois kickout and the ball quickly went through several pairs of Orchard hands.

Three consecutive scores from Laois made it 0-5 to 2-7 at the interval, though Armagh had a notable let-off in the 30th minute when All Star nominee Mo Nerney flashed a low shot across Carr’s goal.

Armagh began brightly after the break but Laois scored first through Donoghue, though her point was cancelled out straight away when Mallon’s shot from an acute angle on the right was tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Eimear Barry.

Having been well off-target with a free, Fitzgerald surprisingly went low with her next attempt, which Cait Towe caught on the goal-line, and then came the Mo Nerney goal albeit cancelled out by a run of three Armagh points.

Aimee Mackin and Maeve Ferguson took over from O’Hagan and Grey at the end of the third quarter but Laois had scored 1-2 without reply by the time McCormack made his next substitution nine minutes later, Niamh Marley replacing Louise Kenny.

Lavery’s third score of the afternoon eased Armagh anxieties and McCoy’s second goal completed the job, but the orangewomen will need to up their performance further when hosting Connacht champions Mayo this Sunday.

One small consolation of losing their Ulster title to Donegal was that it looked like Armagh might have ended up with a slightly easier All Ireland draw on paper than the new provincial champions, being bracketed with Mayo and Laois rather than Meath and Waterford.

Unlike Armagh, Mayo have lost several leading lights to the AFLW and are overshadowed by the likes of All Ireland champions Meath, the traditional big two of Dublin and Cork, and NFL title winners Kerry when it comes to talk of leading contenders for the Brendan Martin Cup.

However, this feels like the most open All Ireland Senior Championship in years, an observation backed up by the results in Saturday evening’s televised group games which resulted in defeats for both Dublin and Cork.

Kerry bounced back from their Munster final loss to Cork by beating the Dubs 2-8 to 1-9 in their own Parnell Park backyard and Galway overcame Cork 3-11 to 1-11 at Pearse Stadium later in the evening.

All Star forward Geraldine McLaughlin had become the latest Donegal legend to return to the fold as Maxi Curran’s side got the All Ireland Senior Championship underway with a 2-10 to 1-8 victory over Waterford in Lifford at lunchtime.

Armagh are well capable of repeating their 2020 All Ireland group game victory over Mayo but anyone thinking the Orchard crew won’t have a tough fight on their hands this Sunday just needs to consider the following sequence of recent results.

All Ireland champions Meath were beaten in the Leinster final by Dublin, who then lost at home to Kerry, who had lost in the Munster showpiece to Cork, who lost their opening All Ireland group game to Galway, who Mayo had defeated in the Connacht decider!

An Orchard defeat this weekend would mean they aren’t mathematically certain of quarter-final qualification – though an away win for Laois against Mayo in the last round of fixtures seems unlikely – but a win will secure top spot in Pool A.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s All Ireland Intermediate Championship action brought victory for Tyrone but defeat for Monaghan, while there were wins for the two Armagh-managed sides in the Junior ranks, Down away to Sligo and Fermanagh against Carlow.

ARMAGH: A Carr; C Towe, C McCambridge, S Grey; L Kenny, L McConville (0-1), G Ferguson; N Coleman, B Mackin (0-2); E Lavery (0-3), C O’Hagan (0-1), E Druse; A McCoy (2-1), K Mallon (capt; 0-3, 2f), N Reel (1-1).  Subs used: A Mackin for O’Hagan (45mins), M Ferguson for Grey (45), N Marley for Kenny (54), B Hendron for Mallon (64).

LAOIS: E Barry; S Farrelly, C Dunne, A Kelly; S Havill, E Healy (capt), L Nerney; A Healy, O Hennessy (0-1); A Kirrane, LM Maher, G Moran; SA Fitzgerald (0-3, 2f), M Nerney (1-3, 3f), K Donoghue (1-1).  Subs used: T Byrne for Moran (57), E O’Connell for L Nerney (64).

Referee: Patrick Smith (Waterford).


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