February 15th, 2024


With two 100 percent records on the line, something will have to give in this Sunday’s match of the day in NFL Division One at Ashbourne (2pm) where former Armagh gaffer Shane McCormack’s presence in the Meath ladies dugout is set to provide a tantalising twist.

Although perhaps not quite to the extent of Mickey Harte’s return to Healy Park as Derry manager, this was always going to be a fascinating fixture thanks to McCormack’s switch from the Orchard outfit to the Royals set-up since last season.

The former Kildare goalkeeper stood down as Armagh manager last summer after just a single season in charge, citing ‘travel demands and work commitments’, and subsequently took the Meath helm.

He has had a successful start to his tenure as Meath began their National League campaign with a 2-18 to 1-15 away win against Mayo, followed by a 2-5 to 0-7 victory over All Ireland champions Dublin in Navan, before beating Waterford 2-10 to 2-5 on the road.

However, their impressive start has been matched by Armagh who have hit the ground running on their return to the top flight after a six-season absence, promotion ironically clinched under McCormack by beating Laois in last April’s Division Two final in Croke Park.

Overcoming Waterford in Gregory McGonigle’s first game in charge would have been expected but then came a first ever away win against Cork and Armagh made it three from three by beating Galway at the Athletic Grounds last time out.

As with her fellow stalwart Aoife McCoy, last Friday was the 10th anniversary of Lauren McConville’s Orchard debut but the Crossmaglen legend insists she’s enjoying life as an Armagh gaelic footballer more than ever.

Delayed a week by the weather, which caused the postponement of Armagh’s scheduled season opener against Longford, McConville’s Orchard career began a decade ago with a narrow away win against Tipperary in NFL Division Three for the then 19-year-old forward.

McConville has been a first-choice starter for seven different management teams, playing 97 Armagh matches since her debut without ever being injured or dropped, albeit she had two sabbaticals with one summer spent in America and two years in Australia subsequently.

“I’ve been around for a while now but am still really enjoying it, more than ever in fact, for it’s a great group of girls.  I’ve learned a lot from some of the older girls over the years and now probably I’m one of the older ones on the team!

“But I’m still loving it and really wanting to drive on this year,” enthused McConville – who is on track to join the exclusive Orchard centurion club before the end of this National League campaign – after Armagh’s victory over Galway.

After returning to the panel for the 2021 campaign, McConville made such a successful switch to centre half back that she has since secured a hat-trick of All Star nominations, picked up three Ulster All Stars and was Armagh’s Player of the Year for 2022.

Despite playing as a defender now, McConville has raised a white flag on each outing this season as Armagh have reeled off three consecutive victories on their return to NFL Division One for the first time since losing a 2017 relegation play-off against Monaghan.

Lauren’s sister Aoibheann was part of the county panel with her last season, while younger brother Cian bagged his first Armagh goal the night before the ladies defeated Galway, in an away win over Meath which the orangewomen will hope to emulate.

“I was glad to see my brother getting a run-out last night and doing so well for the men, and then it was great that we could come back here today and get the win so it was a very special weekend,” Lauren told match commentator Jerome Quinn after the Galway game.

Her point was Armagh’s only score from play in the second half, when they couldn’t capitalise either on having the wind behind them or Galway weariness from having to play most of the match at a numerical disadvantage after an early red card.

“They really put us under pressure and I think we’d missed a free before that as well so it was good to get a score at that time and just settle the heads a wee bit.  It was important that we held on for the win.

“At the beginning of the year we set out with the intention of getting a good start to the league, but with being in Division Two for so long it was hard to know how we’d do.  So we’re very pleased to have got such a great start but now we want to push on and keep improving.

“Our next match against Meath will be a big battle for us, we’ve had very close games against them over the last few years so it’s something to look forward to and the gap in fixtures gives us time to go back to the drawing board and get ready for that.”

Then newly promoted to Division Two, Meath turned over Armagh in the Athletic Grounds in the last fixture before the coronavirus shutdown at the start of March 2020 and also beat the Orchard outfit the following summer on their way to being crowned All Ireland champions.

McConville won Player of the Match when Armagh and Meath drew their 2022 All Ireland group game, a campaign which culminated in the Royals retaining the Brendan Martin Cup, though they fell back last season after a change in management.

Meath have done very well so far this season, not least in light of the absence of a number of key figures from their back-to-back All Ireland wins including Vikki Wall, Emma Troy, skipper Shauna Ennis, Stacey Grimes, Niamh O’Sullivan and Orlagh Lally.

Former All Ireland Player of the Year Wall, like Armagh powerhouse Niamh Marley, has switched to rugby but her Dunboyne clubmate Emma Duggan is still there and led the way with six points in their victory over Waterford last time out.

New Royals supremo McCormack was number two to the then Armagh manager Ronan Murphy for the last two clashes between these counties, Meath’s victory in the 2021 All Ireland quarter-final in Clones and the low-scoring stalemate in Longford’s Pearse Park.

McGonigle fielded an unchanged team from the opening win over Waterford for the trip to Cork and made just one enforced change for the Galway game with Caroline O’Hanlon away on professional netball duty for Leeds Rhinos.

O’Hanlon will line out for Rhinos this Saturday in their British SuperLeague season opener against Severn Stars in Nottingham Arena, but it would be no surprise to see the 39-year-old start in the middle of the field for Armagh the following day.

Of the three teams level on points at the top of the Division One table, National League title holders Kerry, who easily eclipsed Cork 2-14 to 0-7 last time out, occupy first place on scoring difference from Meath (+15), with Armagh (+9) in third.