July 5th, 2024


Richard Bullick at the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds

Aoife McCoy netted twice and Eve Lavery weighed in with five precious points as Armagh got their All Ireland Senior Championship campaign off to a winning start in the absence of ace markswoman Aimee Mackin and the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon.

Armagh grabbed a very valuable victory over their former manager Shane McCormack’s Meath on Saturday afternoon at the Athletic Grounds thanks to a fisted goal late on from midfielder Niamh Coleman.

With the scores level and the hosts recently reduced to 14 women following the sinbinning of Blaithin Mackin on her seasonal debut, the elder Coleman sister did well to punch a dropping long-range free from Kelly Mallon to Monica McGuirk’s net in the 60th minute.

The visitors quickly reduced the arrears to two in injury-time with a point from Meadhbh Byrne and had a chance to snatch victory right at the death but Emma Duggan’s drilled free was tipped over the bar by excellent Armagh goalkeeper Anna Carr.

Carr was one of a number of Orchard heroes on an afternoon when National League title winners Armagh had to manage without their two most decorated players in Aimee Mackin and O’Hanlon, along with the former’s club captain Louise Kenny, due to injury.

The Orchard crew reclaimed the provincial crown from Donegal last month but their Ulster title triumph came at a price with star forward Mackin sustaining the second cruciate rupture of her career in the Clones showpiece.

Kenny suffered significant shoulder damage in that match, while any hopes that O’Hanlon might be released from her British SuperLeague netball commitments were rendered redundant by the fact she wasn’t fit to line out for either Leeds Rhinos or Armagh.

Thankfully Blaithin Mackin’s comeback following a medial ligament tear in pre-season meant Armagh had a quality replacement for O’Hanlon in the middle of the field while Kenny’s place was taken by Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley.

Silverbridge’s Niamh Reel, who scored the match-winning free with her first kick in the Ulster final after being brought on as a sub in the closing stages of extra-time, was originally named in Armagh’s starting line-up for this Meath match in place of Aimee Mackin.

However, on the day it was Lavery, a previous regular at wing forward who has had to make do with cameo appearances this season, who started this opening All Ireland group game and the Ballyhegan ace certainly made the most of her opportunity.

She gave Armagh a left-footed free-taker in the absence of Aimee Mackin and O’Hanlon, and duly converted a hat-trick of set-pieces sandwiched by a glorious opening point of the afternoon and a brilliantly taken score from play to raise her tally to five in the 40th minute.

McGonigle had sprung a surprise by deploying linchpin centre half back Lauren McConville at full forward initially and she linked lethally with her old accomplice McCoy for the Orchard outfit’s first goal.

A forward for her first five seasons for Armagh, McConville did score 5-11 for her club Crossmaglen in a Division One league game this season, but her conversion to centre half back has been so successful that she has made the All Stars shortlist three years running.

Lavery had registered the very first score of this season’s TG4 Senior Championship with a confident left-footed shot from the left of the posts in the second minute and Meath kicked a couple of wides before Duggan equalised with a free.

But Armagh responded superbly, McCoy catching Carr’s kickout and scorching down the middle before feeding Ulster final Player of the Match Niamh Henderson coming through at pace and then finishing clinically after taking a perfect pass from McConville.

The recalled Lavery was looking lively and, although a shot by Blaithin Mackin went just off target, it was well struck for a player who has been out for so long, but Meath pulled a point back courtesy of Ciara Smyth.

Successfully converting what was a reasonably straightforward first free would have eased any nerves Lavery may have had about taking that responsibility but Meath replied with two points in quick succession by Duggan and Megan Thynne.

The ever-lively Emily Druse made a couple of speedy bursts but drove her shot wide from the first and got turned over after running into traffic a minute later, with Armagh grateful for a great tackle by Cait Towe shortly afterwards to help preserve their slender lead.

Mallon and Duggan exchanged frees, the former awarded for a foul on McConville, and Dearbhla Coleman made a crucial intervention in defence though Armagh got turned over upfield, leading to Smyth’s second point for the Royals.

McConville won another free, which Lavery converted, and although Carr showed good composure dealing with a Duggan free which dropped short, the visiting forward split the posts with her next set-piece effort two minutes later to level the scores again.

It remained all square at the interval, as an absorbing opening period during which Meath had the breeze behind them ended with another wide by Blaithin Mackin and McConville displaying her hallmark bravely in securing possession.

The second half began with an opening point by Sarah Wall for Meath followed by McConville hooking her shot wide after a nice run but quickfire frees by Mallon and Lavery had Armagh back in front within four minutes of the resumption.

McConville hung up another ball which went wide and Carr made a sharp save low down at the other end to deny the Royals before Blaithin Mackin doubled the Orchard advantage with her first point of this inter-county campaign.

A great interception by Druse at full tilt launched an Armagh attack which led to a fantastically sharp point by Lavery but Duggan pulled one back, Blaithin Mackin kicked a wide after a weaving run and then Carr did well when Aoibhin Cleary shot hard and low.

But Cleary immediately followed up with a point midway through the second half and then turned the game on its head with a goal a minute later, palming home at the far post from a Smyth shot which was fading to the left after McCoy had been dispossessed in attack.

Armagh tried to hit back but Blaithin Mackin shot straight at the goalkeeper after being brought through and Duggan widened the gap to three points by raising another white flag after the visitors broke at pace.

Mallon pushed a free past the far post but her successor as Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge won a ball brilliantly in defence, and Dearbhla Coleman and Henderson took it on before Mallon offloaded for McCoy to hit the roof of the net from an acute angle.

Niamh Reel and Meabh McCambridge replaced Lavery and Quigley respectively, McConville won a monster turnover and soon afterwards Niamh Coleman set up younger sibling Dearbhla to fist Armagh back in front after an incredible run by McCoy.

But another infringement by Blaithin Mackin saw referee Gus Chapman produce a yellow card and Duggan tie things up again from the resulting free on a day when a draw would have been less appealing to Armagh than the visitors.

These sides shared the spoils in a much less entertaining 2022 group game but a repeat here would have left the Royals in effective control of this pool given that they play Tipperary in the final round of fixtures on June 22.

So Armagh joy was unconfined when Niamh Coleman got on the end of that long free from Mallon to punch it past McGuirk, though nobody was counting chickens with memories of Donegal’s dramatic comeback at the end of normal time in the Ulster final still fresh.

Megan McCann replaced Druse midway through what proved to be four minutes of injury-time – the countdown clock wasn’t in operation for this fixture – but the orangewomen weren’t to be denied thanks to Carr crucially tipping Duggan’s pile-driver over the bar.

In the circumstances, taking her personal tally for the afternoon to eight points, five from frees, wouldn’t have been much consolation to Duggan given that the final whistle went as soon as Carr launched the resulting goal-kick.

As always, Armagh were well served by the energy of livewire little corner backs Grace Ferguson and Roisin Mulligan and they can take confidence from getting over the line in a tight game against good opponents who came to town with a point to prove.

Meath would have wanted to avenge their double-digit defeat against Armagh in their own Ashbourne backyard in February’s National League game and also make amends for an 18-point pasting at the hands of Dublin in the Leinster final last time out.

Although they have lost taliswoman Vikki Wall and several others of the team that won back-to-back All Irelands as recently as 2021 and 2022, the absence of Aimee Mackin and O’Hanlon from the Armagh ranks here would have boosted Meath hopes of an away win.

Victory over Tipperary in the magnificent Semple Stadium in Thurles this Saturday (5.30pm, TG4) would secure top spot in Group One for Armagh and a home quarter-final early next month against a runner-up from one of the other pools.

All Ireland champions Dublin got their title defence underway by beating Mayo 1-10 to 0-5 at Parnell Park in the Group Four opener after Donegal drew 1-6 to 0-9 with Kerry in the Group Two game in Ballybofey.  Cork won easily 6-13 to 1-5 away to Laois in Group Three.

ARMAGH: A Carr; G Ferguson, C McCambridge (capt), R Mulligan; C Towe, L McConville, D Coleman (0-1); N Coleman (1-0), B Mackin (0-1); E Druse, A McCoy (2-0), S Quigley; E Lavery (0-5; 3f), N Henderson, K Mallon (0-2; 2f).  Subs used: N Reel for Lavery (51mins), M McCambridge for Quigley (51), M McCann for Druse (63).

MEATH: M McGuirk (capt); S Wall (0-1), MK Lynch, N Troy; N Gallogly, K Cole, K Newe; M O’Shaugnhessy, A Cleary (1-1); M Thynne (0-1), S Melia, C Smyth (0-2); M Byrne (0-1), M Farrelly, E Duggan (0-8; 5f).  Subs used: L Young for C Smyth (54), S Lynch for Cole (59).

Referee: Gus Chapman (Sligo).

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