Daly leads Ulster into defence of title

May 16, 2016

Richard Bullick

Former Armagh manager James Daly has been tasked with steering Ulster to a record-breaking fifth interprovincial title on the trot this weekend.

He will preside over a panel backboned by eight of his former county players, with the Orchard contingent being the biggest in the squad of 30 for Saturday’s tournament at Kinnegad.

Fresh from taking charge of one of the teams on the All Stars tour in March, being appointed provincial side boss is the latest recognition of Daly’s standing after his highly successful spell at the Orchard helm.

Under the Dromintee man, Armagh won the Ulster and All-Ireland Intermediate titles, secured back to back promotions in the National League, claimed their first Ulster Senior Championship for seven seasons and reached consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals.

He takes over as Ulster manager from Monaghan’s Paula Cunningham who presided over the northern province’s last two title triumphs but has since taken charge of the Farney outfit.

Present Dublin boss Gregory McGonigle masterminded the first two title wins in the province’s current run while he was Monaghan manager and Daly, who has Cavan manager Conor Barry as his assistant, will be keen to maintain Ulster’s successful streak.

Armagh are Ulster’s leading county at present so it is fitting that Orchard representatives will lead the charge for their province with Daly as manager and Carrickcruppen’s Caroline O’Hanlon set to continue as captain.

Monaghan stalwart Sharon Courtney captained Ulster to back to back titles in 2012 and 2013 with Tyrone great Gemma Begley having the honour in 2014 and O’Hanlon last season.

Daly’s squad certainly isn’t lacking leaders with Armagh’s Sinead McCleary, from his current club Clann Eireann, and Tyrone’s Neamh Woods also having skippered their province previously.

South Armagh will be very well represented with Daly and O’Hanlon supplemented by current county captain Mairead Tennyson of Silverbridge, Shane O’Neill’s ace Aimee Mackin, Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville and the manager’s clubmate Aoife McCoy, with McCleary locally connected too as the new wife of local star Tony Kernan.

O’Hanlon has been at the heart of the Ulster side for the past decade while newcomer Mackin netted twice as an 18-year-old in last season’s interpro final win over Connacht and young McConville was also part of that successful squad.

Tennyson and McCleary missed out last season due to injury but both return along with current Armagh vice-captain Fionnuala McKenna from Harps who was unavailable for the last two series due to exams.

There are first provincial call-ups for McCoy and Lissummon’s Niamh Marley, though the latter’s sister Sarah and Harps forward Kelly Mallon, who was in the Ulster squad last season, can count themselves unlucky to miss out.

Armagh have still the highest representation in the squad with eight players to seven apiece from Donegal and Cavan with five from Monaghan, two from Tyrone and Down’s Aileen Pyers.  Nobody from Fermanagh, Antrim or Derry has made the cut.

Donegal are reigning Ulster champions and have won NFL Division Two this season with nine wins from nine but it is slightly surprising that Cavan have as many players involved even with Barry part of the management team.

Considering Armagh went further in the All-Ireland last season out of all the Ulster sides and finished joint second in NFL Division One this spring – Monaghan were next best in seventh – nobody can question the Orchard representation in the provincial panel.

Indeed Monaghan often had double-figure contingents in the squad when they were ruling the roost up north but Armagh have had to settle for eight here with Mallon and Sarah Marley among those somewhat hard done by not to make it.

The interpro series came too soon for Ulster stalwart Caoimhe Morgan who has only recently returned to action after having her second child in early March while the injured Niamh Henderson might have featured if fit.

The talented Lurgan girl made the panel as a teenager in 2013 and 2014, while Daly’s daughter Katie was reserve goalkeeper two years ago when now retired former county captain Mags McAlinden was also among the 30.

There are actually several players in Daly’s squad, notably Begley, 2014 All-Star Players and Monaghan goalkeeper Linda Martin, who appear to have retired from inter-county football, along with Armagh exiles McConville and McCoy.

McConville and McCoy were ejected from the Armagh panel ahead of the last two rounds of NFL fixtures this spring when it emerged they would miss this summer’s Championship campaign because of heading to America next month.

Thankfully their recent Orchard absence hasn’t cost them deserved call-ups by Ulster for whom their unavailability later in the summer has no relevance, while Begley and Martin have understandably been picked on their reputations.

A little like players who have retired from international rugby for their own countries being picked for Lions tours, Begley gets in on her previous exploits even though she has walked away from struggling Tyrone ahead of this season.

All-Star keeper Martin, interpro player of the tournament last year, hasn’t featured for Monaghan this season, possibly because the inter-county campaign came so soon after her club Donaghmoyne’s All-Ireland Senior Club Championship success before Christmas.

Martin seems certain to be first choice keeper this weekend while forward Begley will hope to feature prominently too even though getting up to speed quickly having only played a bit of club football in 2016 will be a considerable challenge.

Pyers was in fine scoring form for Daly’s side during the TG4 All Stars Challenge in San Diego in March and her hopes will be helped by the injury-enforced absence of Donegal’s Geraldine McLaughlin from the roster of forwards.

McLaughlin is the only notable name missing from this Ulster squad which underlines the collective commitment to this competition, particularly in the northern province, which isn’t reflected in the men’s floundering Railway Cup equivalent.

Ulster’s dominance in recent seasons should presumably provoke the other provinces into trying to raise their game to prevent the five-in-a-row and, with Connacht the closest challengers recently, the onus is on Leinster and Munster to do better.

Considering Cork’s incredible dominance of the inter-county scene, Dublin’s emergence as their main rivals and the strength of football in counties like Kerry, Galway and Mayo, Ulster have done extremely well to stay top of the pile for four years running.

They are now there to be shot at but won’t want to relinquish their title and Daly has worked with many of this squad in the past with Armagh, Queen’s, the 2014 All-Stars side or the Ulster Select team in the All In For Ann charity fundraiser last October in honour of his late wife.

He has seen the rest – and many of the opposing players – up close in his role as Armagh manager so should hit the ground running even though Ulster as usual will have only one collective training session in advance of Saturday’s tournament.

With the format of four shortened matches in a single day, three round robin fixtures followed by the final or third place play-off, the provincial managers will need to utilise their squads while having a flexible idea of their first choice line-up.

Assuming everyone selected is fit, Ulster could field Martin in goals with Tennyson, Courtney and Treasa Doherty in the full back line behind the latter’s Donegal colleague Ciara Hegarty, Woods and McCleary with Marley pushing for a chance.

Donegal’s Katie Herron or Cavan’s Roisin Lynch could partner O’Hanlon in midfield with Armagh’s recently converted centre half-back McKenna moving back to her original role of centre half-forward flanked by Monaghan’s All-Star Cora Courtney and Cavan’s Aisling Doonan.

Begley will hope to force her way into the front six somewhere if she shapes up promisingly in spite of her lack of football while the dynamic McCoy can contribute too when called upon.

Mackin is a certainty in the full forward line, probably alongside Monaghan’s Ciara McAnespie and the prolific Yvonne McMonagle of Donegal, with the likes of Pyers and McConville waiting in the wings.

However with niggling injuries and less heralded squad members grabbing their chance to shine, these provincial line-ups tend to evolve during the day and the interprovincial championship is an inherently intense, attritional tournament.

O’Hanlon is the longest-serving player in this squad and, like Woods, will be coming into the ladies gaelic interpros off the back of featuring for Northern Ireland in netball’s European Championships which finished yesterday.