Armagh ladies secure top four place
CLARE 1-10 ARMAGH 2-18
Richard Bullick reports
Armagh confirmed their NFL Division Two top four play-off place in emphatic fashion with an 11-point away win against Clare at Milltown Malbay which has earned them a semi-final against Tipperary on Sunday week.
Double All-Star Aimee Mackin typically led the way with 2-6 but all six of Armagh’s starting forwards scored along with midfielder Fionnuala McKenna in the course of a deserved, convincing and vital victory.
With Cavan winning the Ulster derby against Tyrone in Omagh later in the afternoon, an Orchard defeat would have seen them miss out on the top four and ended hopes of bouncing back at the first attempt from relegation last spring.
The teams scored 1-7 apiece in the last half hour but Armagh had laid the foundations for victory in a productive opening period during which they scored 12 times including Mackin’s first goal, finished to the bottom corner from a tight angle midway through the half.
With such a comfortable cushion, the concession of a penalty in the second minute after the resumption, which also led to the sinbinning of Rebecca O’Reilly, didn’t need to unduly concern the Orchard outfit on an afternoon goalkeeper Caroline O’Hare added another entry to her collection of great saves this season.
Armagh responded with points from Aoife McCoy and Lauren McConville and, although Clare then registered five of the next six scored, the visitors impressively pulled away again in the last quarter.
Another McConville point ended a run of three on the trot by Grainne Nolan for Clare and Aimee Mackin netted on 48 minutes to extend Armagh’s advantage to double-figure proportions, effectively ending Clare hopes of claiming a significant scalp.
Although Clare always looked more likely to be involved in the relegation battle than promotion race this season, Armagh made the long journey to the south west with a degree of understandable apprehension.
Originally supposed to be a round five fixture, which was postponed because of the snow in early March, this rearranged game had become a must-win for Armagh after their unlucky, last-gasp home defeat to Waterford in Lurgan seven days earlier.
There was always a possibility Tyrone could do their traditional rivals Armagh a favour by beating Cavan, in which case the orangewomen would have edged their former manager James Daly’s Breffni brigade on points difference.
But, with Tyrone captain Neamh Woods away playing netball at the Commonwealth Games, that result seemed unlikely even with the Red Hands having home advantage at her Drumragh club ground, and so it proved.
In any case, with the Armagh match taking place two hours earlier than the Ulster derby, they had to assume an away win was required and, with the match being played in far-flung Milltown Malbay, the Orchard team travelled down on Saturday.
They wanted to take no chances of being caught cold by a previously unfancied Clare side emboldened by only losing by two points to unbeaten table toppers Tipperary the previous Sunday and needing at least a draw themselves to be sure of avoiding the drop.
The postponement meant Armagh having to do without taliswoman Caroline O’Hanlon, away captaining the Northern Ireland netball team at the Commonwealth Games in Australia, for the Clare clash, her absence compounding a growing injury list in the Orchard camp.
St Peter’s prospect Tiarna Grimes, who had been deputising for O’Hanlon in midfield, dislocated her shoulder against Waterford, joining siblings Niamh and Catherine Marley, Louise Kenny and Niamh Coleman in the ranks of long-term lay-offs.
With Grimes gone, the obvious option would have been to deploy Blaithin Mackin in midfield but the teenager just returned to the country from Las Vegas the night before the match, having broken a run of 25 consecutive starts since her Orchard debut by missing the Waterford fixture.
So Clann Eireann’s Clodagh McCambridge was switched from defence to join McKenna in an untried but predictably dependable pairing which did a good job for joint Armagh managers Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney.
The McCambridge move meant All-Star Mairead Tennyson, who was brought back via the bench against Waterford after being unavailable for the win over Laois, could return to the half-back line without Forkhill’s Megan Sheridan, who played well last day, dropping out.
Tennyson took over from Grimes in a reshuffled side while the Armagh management also made an attacking change which saw Silverbridge schoolgirl Niamh Reel, a specialist forward, make her first start at senior level at the expense of the versatile Shauna Grey.
Grey’s Dromintee clubmate McCoy switched to her old position of wing-forward to give Armagh more pace coming from deep and she opened the Orchard account within a minute of the noon start.
Niamh O’Dea replied for the hosts but a great first score from Mackin, a fine effort from McKenna coming right through the middle on a strong run and Kelly Mallon, put Armagh three up with eight minutes gone.
Clare pulled two points back but Armagh then scored 1-7 without reply in the remainder of the half, Mackin contributing a free and a goal before Mallon rounded off a great team move with her second point of the game.
Armagh’s last five points of the half, all from play, came in a seven-minute purple patch, two from Mackin sandwiching scores from young Nimah Reel, the in-form Marian McGuinness and McKenna.
Reel got her second point in the third quarter, punctuating what would otherwise have been a run of five successive scores by Clare, but Armagh hit back by outscoring their hosts 1-4 to 0-2 in the remainder of the game.
Blaithin Mackin came on for Niamh Reel just after her big sister Aimee’s second goal while Grey and Aoibheann Jones of Shane O’Neills replaced Sheridan and Mallon respectively in the closing stages.
Mallon had kicked a free on 51 minutes, with Aimee Mackin skimming a point just over the crossbar and getting a final score from play in between a free and a point by O’Dea, whose 0-4 was eclipsed by Nolan’s 1-5, for the home team.
Victory clinched Armagh’s place in the semi-finals and news of consequently whitewashed Sligo’s seventh loss of the campaign at home to Laois an hour later meant Clare could also celebrate, in their case the retention of second division status.
They have won only one league game all season, against Sligo, but Clare’s consolation will be easily winning the Munster Intermediate title this summer now that Tipperary and Waterford are both in the senior ranks.
Both those teams will be fighting for the chance to replace fellow Munster representatives Kerry in next season’s Lidl National League top flight having finished first and second in the Division Two table ahead of the three Ulster sides.
Tyrone’s defeat to Cavan confirmed the Munster pair would be the top two before their delayed clash took place later in the afternoon following a switch to Waterford Institute of Technology because of unplayable pitches in county Tipperary.
With head-to-head result rather than points difference the decisive criteria, any Waterford win was going to be enough to pip Tipp to top spot, while ending the All-Ireland Intermediate champions’ unbeaten run stretching back to 2016 was additional incentive.
When Maria Delahunty netted in the first half, Waterford were an incredible 10 points up and although Orla O’Dwyer quickly replied in kind, the gap grew to 11 again in the second and it finished 1-19 to 2-6.
So as a result of failing to complete their expected clean sweep of seven victories from seven league games, Tipp play Armagh and Waterford face Cavan, who were edged into fourth place by the Orchard side’s superior points difference.
Head-to-head record is the first tie-breaker used but because Armagh and Cavan drew on identical scores, 2-14 apiece, at Templeport back in February, it reverted to points difference and the Orchard’s healthy plus 71 was 24 better than their Breffni rivals.
Armagh had actually by far the best points difference in the division and were the most prolific scorers, thanks in no small measure to that woman Mackin who has top-scored in every game this season so far.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; S Marley, C Morgan (capt), R O’Reilly; S Reel, M Tennyson, M Sheridan; C McCambridge, F McKenna (0-2); M McGuinness (0-1), K Mallon (0-3, 1f), A McCoy (0-2); L McConville (0-2), A Mackin (2-6, 1f), N Reel (0-2). Subs: B Mackin for N Reel (49mins), S Grey for Sheridan (56), A Jones for Mallon (56).