Armagh face crunch clash with Cavan
Armagh and their former manager James Daly will be on opposing sides when the two Ulster teams start their TG4 All Ireland Senior Championship campaign at Templeport this Saturday (2pm).
The Orchard outfit face Cavan in what will be a tough opening group game against Daly’s Breffni brigade, especially as the orangewomen will be without star player Caroline O’Hanlon.
Currently captaining Northern Ireland at the Netball World Cup in Liverpool, the triple all Star will hope to have led the Warriors to a mid-morning victory over Zimbabwe before following the Armagh match.
This will be the first All Ireland Senior Championship match O’Hanlon has missed for more than a decade, though she should be back for the Cork clash at the end of the month.
However, with the new National League champions appearing to be back to their formidable best, both Ulster sides will be very keen to get a win under their belts this weekend.
The scenario is very similar to last season’s first campaign under the new group stage format when Armagh, having lost the Ulster final to Donegal, were away to another team from the northern province in their opening game before facing Cork.
On that occasion it was Monaghan rather than Cavan, and an away draw was to prove as good as a win for Armagh, who went through to the last eight thanks to a smaller loss against Cork than the Farney women.
This time too, Armagh are going into their All-Ireland campaign on the back of a bad beating by Donegal in the Ulster showpiece and desperate to prove their worth by bouncing back.
A year ago, Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s team did very well to recover from that 28-point pasting by Donegal to share the spoils with Monaghan in Clones, where O’Hanlon couldn’t snatch victory with a last-kick free.
However, this Sunday could prove an even greater test of Orchard character considering Cavan are coming into this tie with a spring in their step and revenge in their nostrils.
Although gutted to be beaten by Donegal in extra-time of last month’s Ulster semi having been five points up towards the end, Cavan can take enormous encouragement from that performance.
By contrast a disastrous start in Clones ensured the Orangewomen were never really in the hunt against Donegal and their hugely disappointing 5-12 to 1-9 Ulster decider defeat by the humbling margin of 15 points was very hard to take.
The Orchard crew will no doubt be bursting to make amends against Cavan but have had considerably less time to prepare for this showdown than their opponents.
Daly, who led his home county to their last Ulster title five years ago and back to back All Ireland semi-finals, knows Armagh inside out and will be confident of securing his first Cavan victory over them.
Armagh edged Cavan in Inniskeen in last season’s Ulster semi and subsequently blitzed their visitors in blue by 20 points in a National League game in Clonmore back in February.
Cavan scored just three points all afternoon but they have made massive strides since, as evidenced by an away win over Kerry later in that campaign and that titanic tussle with Donegal.
With home advantage and no O’Hanlon in the Orchard ranks, Daly will be convinced Cavan can take a significant scalp here and leave Armagh needing to shock Cork on July 27 in order to progress.
For their part, Armagh must summon the spirit of Clones last July and not let another devastating Donegal defeat knock confidence as they launch their bid to reach the All-Ireland knockout stages.
McCaffrey feels she saw enough fight from her troops in Clones to predict the right response next time out and understandably laments that disastrous start, leaking two goals in 16 seconds to be eight down with just three minutes played, which skewed everything on Ulster final day.
“Knowing we beat ourselves was the most disappointing element and it was a very difficult situation for everyone, effectively finding ourselves in the same scenario at half-time as 12 months ago,” she sighed.
“Donegal are the type of team that are difficult to play against if they get ahead at all so we knew it was important to get a good start but unfortunately we shot ourselves in the foot, not once, nor twice but three or four times and at this level you can’t expect not to be punished.
“People can talk about us self-destructing or effectively failing to turn up in that opening period but it was tough for the girls going out for the second half so far behind and, to their credit, they showed the fight, the hunger and the hard work which epitomises Armagh ladies.
“We had some good moves which didn’t deliver anything and then Donegal did more damage in a short space of time but, even when it was clear the game was over, our girls fought for every ball.
“They gave absolutely everything in that second half and to do that when the hopes you came with have gone takes real character and I’m tremendously proud of them for that and how they didn’t lose their self-respect or give up.
“I’m just so sorry they haven’t got what that group of players deserve but unfortunately you have to accept the reality of the situation, that Donegal are champions for another year and we’re runners-up again.”
Watching the team make elementary mistakes must have been frustrating for McAtamney and McCaffrey, for although they can’t be blamed for much of what happened, another heavy defeat inevitably attracts analysis, not all of it fair, from the armchair critics.
McCaffrey bristled slightly at the suggestion Armagh adopted too negative tactics from the outset or settled later for damage limitation rather than going all out to chase the game.
She asserted that the post-match conversations may well have been very different but for that catastrophic first few minutes which left the Orchard outfit floundering and handed Donegal unimaginable momentum, but wasn’t scapegoating players.
The joint managers have a great passion for Armagh ladies football and that absolute loyalty to their players will help ensure the Orchard camp remains a positive place with everyone sticking together as they regroup for facing Cavan.
“We hadn’t looked beyond Donegal but, after reflecting on the final, it will be about getting back on the horse, preparing for the next challenge and showing what Armagh’s all about.
“This is a great group of girls and although this has hurt everyone, we’ll pick ourselves up and go again just like last year. It’s an Ulster derby this time too so that should bring out all of Armagh’s grit and determination.”
Armagh have reached the Ulster final in each of McCaffrey’s last four seasons on the management ticket, albeit these past two hadn’t the happy outcome of the previous two, when the Orchard claimed their first two Ulster titles in 2006 and 2007.
“You aren’t guaranteed a happy ending on these occasions and, having been on both sides of it, I’m acutely aware of the great gulf between the wonderful days when you win and awful feeling when you lose, especially if there’s a sense you haven’t done yourselves justice.
“But we always want to be in the big games, even when there are painful lessons from them, we’ll try to use the experience positively and keep pushing forward with a team that is still developing,” she vowed.
O’Hanlon’s absence means Niamh Marley, who has seemed out in the cold lately, must surely regain a starting spot in Templeport, particularly after McCaffrey praised her contribution off the bench in the Donegal game.
“Niamh did well as did (fellow subs) Megan Sheridan and Niamh Reel. She has just come back this season after injury and we’re working with her to understand the particular role we want her to play. She’s a brilliant girl to have in the squad and I’m delighted with her coming on and putting on the performance she did.”
Sheridan, first choice wing back before breaking her hand during the National League, will also be in the frame for a starting spot but Armagh will still have Aveen Donaldson available the week before her wedding.
Like Donegal, Cavan have very useful forwards and Daly will no doubt target the Armagh kickouts especially with O’Hanlon not there as an outlet for Caroline O’Hare but they had better beware the ferocious response of a wounded Orchard outfit.