Champs Cruppen paired with big rivals

March 25, 2019

Richard Bullick

Last season’s inaugural Buttercrane Club Championships ended on an exhilarating high and now the second edition is set to get underway with a bang this summer.

The curtain came down last September with Dromintee edging Forkhill after extra-time in a thrilling Intermediate decider at Silverbridge where an excellent crowd created a great atmosphere.

It was a perfect climax to the domestic season which perhaps helped persuade Newry’s Buttercrane Shopping Centre to invest for a second season as title sponsors of the Orchard Club Championships at adult level.

Last week’s draw has guaranteed an explosive start to the 2019 Buttercrane Championships with Armagh ladies gaelic’s established Big Two paired in the preliminary round at Senior level.

Clann Eireann will have home advantage as they seek to avenge last season’s showpiece loss to traditional rivals Carrickcruppen, who ended their hopes of completing a hat-trick of county title triumphs.

This will be the last year of a decade in which Clann Eireann lead ’Cruppen by five title triumphs to four with these clubs having met in seven of the nine finals including the past three.

The exceptions came in 2012 and 2015 when Dromintee and Armagh Harps reached the respective finals on the back of the top pair being drawn together in the semis, which produced one win each.

So neither club has been beaten in the Championship this decade by anyone except each other, which underlines the formidable duopoly they have established on the domestic scene.

However Armagh Harps came particularly close to breaking that trend last season when they were level with ’Cruppen going into injury-time in a pulsating quarter-final at Abbey Park before being edged out by two points.

Harps look like the big winners from the 2019 draw, not only avoiding champions ’Cruppen and Clann Eireann but also what are arguably the county’s fourth and fifth strongest teams on their side of the draw.

Outside of Clann Eireann, Carrickcruppen and Harps, Shane O’Neill’s look the most dangerous side with Aimee and Blaithin Mackin in their ranks while Grange are probably best of the rest.

Whoever wins the bumper preliminary round game in Lurgan will go to Grange in the quarter-finals, while the other last eight tie in that half sees Shanes host Lissummon in a repeat of the 2015 Intermediate final.

On that occasion, Niamh Marley was a second half force of nature as she hauled Lissummon back from a double-digit deficit while her big sister Caoimhe Morgan gallantly held Aimee Mackin to 3-7 in spite of being three months pregnant.

Veteran defender Morgan will no doubt take responsibility for trying to shackle Mackin again, assuming she is back in time from injury, but Shanes will be expected to progress to the semis.

Last season, in spite of an awful League campaign which ended in relegation from the top flight, they put up a good fight in the Senior Championship quarter-final at Clann Eireann and would relish another tilt at one of the top two.

Even with home advantage, the legendary Dervla Mallon back from maternity leave and Armagh’s Colleen McKenna returned from America, Grange aren’t likely to spring an upset in the last eight, especially if facing Clann Eireann, who hammered them in the semi-final last season.

Although ’Cruppen proved worthy winners of last year’s showpiece, that loss was Clann Eireann’s first domestic defeat for three seasons and the Lurgan giants will probably be considered favourites to regain the Marie Hoye Cup.

Whoever emerges from that half seems certain to face Armagh Harps in the showpiece with the city club being odds on to reach what would be only their second decider this century.

In the quarter-finals they are away to a Crossmaglen side stripped of county star Lauren McConville and defensive duo Orla Donaldson and Orlaith Murtagh, who are all in Australia, and which was trounced by ’Cruppen in last season’s semi.

Unless neutral venues are sourced, Harps will be back in Armagh for a semi-final against either reigning Intermediate champions Dromintee or Silverbridge, neither of whom would be fancied to beat them.

With a very big panel, promising players another year older, Leah McGoldrick due back from injury to bolster the team beaten by ’Cruppen, only Kelly Mallon having county commitments and now this good draw, Harps will feel this could be their year.

There might have been some expectation of at least one team dropping down to the Intermediate ranks this season but instead Dromintee join the existing eight teams to contest the second tier title.

After Forkhill’s agonising near miss last September, they face a potentially tough opening game away to Granemore who pushed them hard in last season’s semi.

Sarsfield, beaten finalists in 2016 and 2017 before enduring difficulties last season, have home advantage in the last eight against last year’s other losing semi-finalists, Mullaghbawn.

Unless Sarsfields have regrouped properly, they could go out early again against Niamh Murphy’s Mullaghbawn, who gave Dromintee from two League divisions above a real scare last August, with Armagh goalkeeper Caroline O’Hare continuing to be a prolific forward at club level.

The winners will fancy their chances away to either reigning Junior champions Mullabrack or Killeavy, while if Forkhill come through against Granemore they should see off Cullyhanna or Ballyhegan in the last four.

Last season, Cullyhanna and Dorsey combined to play as Lower Creggan but the former are set to go their own way this terms with 2013 Junior finalists Dorsey effectively folding.

Clonmore will have high hopes of emulating Mullabrack last season by bouncing back from losing the previous year’s Junior final to take the third tier title.

They host St Paul’s in the quarter-finals and will probably meet another Lurgan club, St Peter’s, in the semis for the latter have home advantage against Craobh Ciaran, the Middletown-Derrynoose amalgamation, in the last eight.

On the other side of the draw, the smart money would appear to be on a semi-final between Lurgan’s Clan na Gael, who host reformed neighbours Eire Og, and Tir na nOg, though the Portadown women will first have to win at 2016 finalists Pearse Og before facing newcomers Corrinshego.

It is quite conceivable that last season’s three runners-up, Clann Eireann, Forkhill and Clonmore, could get their hands on the silverware this time but there should hopefully be plenty of cracking games along the way at all levels.

Meanwhile, the still sponsorless Leagues got underway at the weekend, with the four-division format introduced last season being retained for a second year.

The one difference from last season sees Division One reduced to six sides and Division Two correspondingly increasing to seven with Shane O’Neills and Sarsfields dropping down while just Silverbridge come up.

Killeavy were relegated from last season’s second division, replaced by Division Three champions Mullaghbawn, with St Peter’s dropping to the basement section and Tir na nOg taking their place.

The other two changes in the seven-team Division Four see newcomers Corrinshego and reformed Eire Og replace Clann Eireann Seconds and Keady, who had to drop out of adult ladies football due to lack of numbers.

The Leagues got underway at the weekend with fixtures in Division Two and Four which require extra rounds due to each having a seventh team.

Division One starts this Saturday with Carrickcruppen hosting Armagh Harps, Grange going to Dromintee and newly-promoted Silverbridge facing a daunting trip to champions Clann Eireann.

Some clubs will be more affected than others by how much county players are available but any teams finishing above Clann Eireann, Shane O’Neill’s, Granemore and Clonmore at the various levels surely have a great chance of being divisional winners.

BUTTERCRANE CHAMPIONSHIPS: SENIOR: Shane O’Neill’s v Lissummon, Crossmaglen v Armagh Harps, Dromintee v Silverbridge, Grange v Clann Eireann or Carrickcruppen; INTERMEDIATE: Granemore v Forkhill, Mullabrack v Killeavy, Cullyhanna v Ballyhegan, Sarsfields v Mullaghbawn; JUNIOR: Clonmore v St Paul’s, Clan na Gael v Eire Og, Pearse Og or Tir na nOg v Corrinshego, St Peter’s v Craobh Ciaran.