June 6th, 2024


Richard Bullick

As the dust settles on ladies gaelic football’s provincial championships, the All Ireland draw has been finalised, with the top tier group games getting underway on Saturday week when Armagh host recent champions Meath at the Athletic Grounds (2pm).

The orangewomen will travel that long way to Tipperary for a televised tie the following Saturday, with their opponents then visiting former Armagh manager Shane McCormack’s Royals in the final fixture in Group One.

Although Meath claimed the first two All Ireland titles in their history in 2021 and 2022, they took a 3-17 to 0-8 pasting in the recent Leinster final from current champions Dublin, who will be regarded as favourites to retain the Brendan Martin Cup come the start of August.

Dublin begin their All Ireland title defence with a televised game against Connacht runners-up Mayo on Sunday week in a Group Four completed by reigning Intermediate champions Kildare, who have also won NFL Division Two this season.

Donegal’s near-miss against Armagh in the Ulster showpiece has resulted in them being placed in a tough Group Two with Kerry, who they host in their opening game in Ballybofey, and first division survivors Waterford.

Having won the National League last season and gone on to reach a second consecutive All Ireland final, Kerry are regarded as leading contenders for the sport’s top prize despite being beaten by Armagh in the Division One decider this spring.

They had to withstand a significant challenge in the Munster final from faded force Cork, who responded to their recent relegation from NFL Division One by scoring nine points in a row at one stage to lead Kerry by six.

But the Kingdom women were eventually crowned Munster champions for the first time since 2017 on a 2-15 to 0-13 scoreline in Mallow to take the top seed spot in Group Two, while Galway will have that status in Group Three.

Despite suffering relegation from the National League’s top flight, Galway overcame Mayo 1-11 to 0-9 in the Connacht Senior Championship final and their reward is a place in an All Ireland group alongside two Division Two rivals of next season, Cork and unfancied Laois.

Around this time last year, the All Ireland field felt incredibly open with most of the top eight teams having decent credentials but Dublin were emphatic champions in the end and appear even stronger now despite missing out on a place in the NFL final.

Mick Bohan brought through some fresh talent during the league campaign, players like captain Carla Rowe and Hannah Tyrrell are proven performers, Jennifer Dunne is immense in midfield and the return of the legendary Sinead Goldrick is a considerable bonus.

After the first phase of this season, a case could have been made for regarding All Ireland champions Dublin, back-to-back finalists Kerry and new NFL title-winners Armagh as a notional big three of ladies football followed by Meath and Mayo.

National League relegation appeared to count against the credentials of Cork and Galway, while failure to bounce back from the drop last season made it look like Donegal’s days of being realistic contenders were over for the time being.

Meath’s hammering from Dublin and Mayo’s failure to claim the Connacht title have led to their stock falling somewhat whereas Galway and Donegal came away from their respective provincial competitions with a renewed spring in their step.

Formidable Dublin served notice that they remain the team to beat, Kerry largely did what was expected of them but Armagh may be viewed as having slipped back into the pack after an unconvincing victory over Donegal compounded by devastating injury news.

Orchard hopes have undoubtedly been dented a bit by the loss of ace markswoman Aimee Mackin, reasonably described by manager Gregory McGonigle as the country’s top forward, and Armagh have reached the All Ireland final only once in their history, way back in 2006.

Despite winning the Ulster title, they find themselves in a challenging enough group and, compounding Mackin’s absence, Caroline O’Hanlon is scheduled to be playing British SuperLeague netball for Leeds Rhinos the days of both the Meath and Tipperary matches.

Having to survive such a scare from Donegal meant there was more relief than sheer euphoria in the Orchard camp afterwards, with the heat having taken its toll and the injuries to Mackin and her clubmate Louise Kenny have cast a significant cloud.

The dramatic conclusion to normal-time in Clones, Donegal grabbing a share of the spoils with their late 1-1, paved the way for extra-time excitement but the Ulster showpiece wasn’t a spectacle like the NFL final due to the opposition’s packed defence.

Perhaps, like Derry’s men, Armagh may have experienced a subconscious provincial championship hangover after expending huge energy and emotional effort in winning a National League title which they had really targeted.

There was a significant gap in between, but the unhealthily long lay-off didn’t actually help Armagh much and several players have suffered bereavements, with Anna Carr losing her dad and the Mackin sisters mourning the loss of their grandfather.

However, McGonigle’s women avoided the fate of the Armagh men the previous Sunday – beaten by Donegal after failing to hold onto a four-point lead – and came away with the win unlike last May when the teams met in the corresponding game at Owenbeg.

Coming out the right side of such a tight game should stand to Armagh moving forward and there are positives to take from their resilient response to having victory snatched away initially and then falling behind twice in the second period of extra-time in such heat.

Ultimately the Orchard outfit found a way to get over the line, and the fact that the winning score came from Niamh Reel with her first touch highlighted the bench’s contribution, provided reassurance around squad depth and should help inspire panel members.

Armagh have their largest ever panel with 38 players listed in the Ulster final match programme, with only musician Niamh Murray having fallen by the wayside this season, and McGonigle deserves great credit for keeping such a big group properly bought in.

The Orchard boss was happy to risk a big beating by Dublin in the last regular league game to give game-time to some of the panel’s more peripheral players and Erin O’Reilly had the thrill of officially togging out for the first time as part of the Ulster final matchday squad.

In interviews on the pitch in Croke Park and Clones after the final whistle in both the National League and Ulster Championship finals, O’Hanlon notably made reference to those who were working hard but hadn’t made the designated squad of 30 on the day.

Like Andy Farrell with the Ireland men’s rugby set-up, or Brendan McCullum’s England cricket Test team, McGonigle understands the importance of keeping players happy despite the reality that the currency of match minutes is finite.

Reel has had a bit-part role over the past couple of seasons, but when the chance unexpectedly came to be the hero, she was ready to step up and take the opportunity presented on what ended up as unforgettable afternoon for her.

Perhaps we’ll take a closer look here next time about Orchard contingencies and how Armagh might manage without Aimee Mackin, but Silverbridge forward Reel has undoubtedly put herself firmly in the mix for increased involvement.

With the departure of experienced players like Niamh Marley, Catherine Marley and Tiarna Grimes over the winter, on top of the loss of forwards Alex Clarke and Aoife Lennon earlier last season, there were concerns about Orchard depth coming into this campaign.

Those worries were compounded by Blaithin Mackin tearing her medial ligament in a pre-season challenge game and other shorter-term injuries, yet Armagh started with six consecutive victories on their return to NFL Division One after a six-season absence.

Shrewd operator McGonigle deserves great credit, not just for getting the most out of his side and the enhanced belief with which Armagh have played this season – like history-making Clann Eireann last autumn – but also effectively expanding the Orchard core.

Even before Blaithin Mackin got injured, and taking into account the welcome return of O’Hanlon after her sabbatical last summer, you could have argued Armagh had a nucleus of just 16 players at the start of the year.

Along with last season’s breakout star Emily Druse, that core contingent included Caitriona O’Hagan, the strapping teenager from Carrickcruppen, who started most of Armagh’s big games in 2023 as well as shining at club level.

O’Hagan has slipped backwards a bit in the pecking order this term so didn’t feature in Clones and Blaithin Mackin has yet to take the field in 2024, yet 21 players featured for Armagh in the Ulster final and each contributed to the eventual victory.

Ireland were whitewashed in emphatic fashion in women’s rugby’s Six Nations Championship last season but this spring finished third in the six-team table under new boss Scott Bemand, securing qualification for next year’s World Cup in the process.

That reflected a number of factors including Bemand having a stronger squad due to being able to utilise the sevens stars, promoting young talent, ending Cliodhna Moloney’s exile, availing of the Irish-qualified Shannon Ikahihifo and being pragmatic in picking older players.

Likewise, McGonigle has creatively added six important pieces to his Armagh jigsaw this season by hand-picking players of value from outside the previous set-up rather than relying upon promoting the best of a county Minor team which struggled badly last year.

Admittedly four of those six – three of whom started in Clones with the rest sprung from the bench – came from the Clann Eireann team McGonigle steered to that historic Ulster title triumph but that reflects the good groundwork he had done there.

Experienced campaigner McGonigle clearly recognised Roisin Mulligan as a young player who could be fast-tracked through without serving an Armagh apprenticeship and the compact corner back has had a meteoric rise.

She spent a significant chunk of last Sunday’s decider marking Donegal captain Niamh McLaughlin, 2022 All Ireland Player of the Year, but the girl who has usurped Emily Druse as Armagh’s youngest starter at present is also comfortable going forward with the ball.

Up until now, those of us without her evident natural talent or athletic attributes had regarded Dearbhla Coleman as a frustrating enigma but, having got the best out of her in initially club colours, McGonigle is now reaping the rewards with Armagh.

Between determined tackling and nice intercepts, the 6’1” Coleman junior won plenty of turnovers in the Ulster final, linked well with O’Hanlon, hit a glorious long-range point and was still working to push Donegal back before being subbed at the end of extra-time.

Classy Clann Eireann captain Niamh Henderson picked up Player of the Match in her first Ulster final for a decade having been persuaded by her club boss McGonigle to return to county football after a nine-year absence.

An accomplished player with an impressive physique who started the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final for Armagh as a 17-year-old wing back, Henderson had to take on more scoring responsibility here and duly did so, with a tally of three precious points from play.

McGonigle’s justifiable faith in Henderson was reflected by how he threw her in from the off of the blockbuster league game against Kerry shortly after her return to the panel rather than being eased in via the bench.

In addition to those three starters, the other trio of valuable additions referred to above were the first three subs used by Armagh against Donegal, representing the trio of clubs which won the Buttercrane Junior, Intermediate and Senior Championships last season.

The versatile Sarah Quigley, who spearheaded Clonmore’s historic Junior Championship success, has had to come on before half-time in both the NFL and Ulster finals due to injuries, and the big occasions didn’t daunt a player from the lower echelons of club football.

Medical student Quigley isn’t especially big but has a powerful physique, can play a variety of roles, showed up better than most in that mismatch against Dublin and gave Armagh their interval lead in Clones with a confident point after an attack in which she was prominent.

Ulster Club Dual Player of the Year Doyle dragged a shot wide in extra-time after a wonderful long-busting break from deep by Lauren McConville and later stepped over the endline catching a dropping ball before turning and rifling to the Donegal net.

But Granemore forward Doyle, who got her first start for Armagh as a schoolgirl just ahead of the first coronavirus shutdown before focusing on county camogie, had raised a white flag as a sub against Kerry in the NFL final.

The Orchard captain’s younger sibling Meabh McCambridge was finally persuaded to come on board the county football bus during the National League campaign and made her first Armagh appearance in the final few minutes at Croke Park.

Having come on for Aimee Mackin in Clones, McCambridge blossomed in extra-time, cleanly catching Carr’s kickout to set up a point for Niamh Henderson, injecting pace before feeding Aoife McCoy ahead of the match-winning free and blocking the Donegal 45 right at the end.

Meabh’s big sister Clodagh McCambridge has now lifted two trophies in her first nine matches as Orchard captain and, although their fourth in five seasons, this was just the seventh Ulster title triumph in Armagh’s history so still special even if expected.