Orchard sights set on Dublin double – Armagh v Down
Armagh go into their second Dublin final in seven months today determined to add a National League title to the All Ireland Intermediate trophy won last October.
Unbeaten for over a year now, Armagh go into Saturday’s Division Three derby decider against Down on the back of seven straight victories since drawing with the Mourne women in the first league game of this season.
Having won the Ulster and All Ireland Intermediate Championships last year, gaining promotion in the league is Armagh’s headline objective in 2013 and this showdown with their near neighbours represents by far their most realistic chance of silverware this season.
Armagh’s only previous National League success came in 2005, when they were also up against Ulster opposition – beating Down by a single point – and a youthful Caroline O’Hanlon won Player of the Match.
Eight years on, the incomparable O’Hanlon is still Armagh’s greatest asset and, now with two All Stars under her belt, the Orchard captain as always will be a key figure for James Daly’s side in the big game.
Currently joint top of the Armagh scoring charts for 2013 with the only other survivor from the starting line-up eight years ago, Sinead McCleary, O’Hanlon unusually failed to register a point when these teams last met in Hilltown – though she was assigned two markers on that occasion.
Apart from facing Ulster opposition in the decider, another coincidental link with 2005 was the fact that the final that year took place at St Loman’s Park in Mullingar, scene of Armagh’s recent semi-final victory over Tipperary.
Back in the mid-noughties, upwardly-mobile Armagh won two national trophies in the space of several months as they went on to claim the All Ireland Junior title later in 2005, with rising star O’Hanlon again named Player of the Match for the final against Sligo.
That sense of double whammy history could repeat itself in reverse as Armagh are going for a second victory in a Dublin final in quick succession having beaten Waterford in Croke Park last October to take the Mary Quinn Cup.
O’Hanlon insists she doesn’t do nostalgia, rightly pointing out that neither history nor omens put points on the scoreboard or stop the opposition playing. Likewise, past triumphs don’t satisfy present hunger.
Rather than taking a sentimental trip down memory lane, the 28-year-old hospital doctor is excited about the potential of an Armagh team revitalised by the introduction of a shiny new crop of Orchard talent whose ability and attitude have impressed her.
But getting out of Division Three at this stage is an important milestone in the Armagh masterplan so the skipper’s full focus is on Saturday’s showdown, with historic silverware won being of little immediate interest compared to the trophy and promotion prize on offer at Parnell Park.
“Winning Division Three unbeaten has been a major objective for us since the turn of the year and now we’re in a position to make that happen by winning one more match,” says O’Hanlon, who doubles up as an international netball star.
“When we won the All Ireland Intermediate final last autumn, we were clear about wanting it to be a stepping stone, a springboard for further success, rather than an end in itself. Gaining promotion became our next target.
“Having had to salvage a draw against them in our opening league game, we certainly won’t be underestimating Down and everyone’s expecting a tough game. They’re a stronger side now than the one we beat twice last year.
“I’m sure they won’t fear us after the draw in Hilltown but we’re really looking forward to the rematch too, not least because it gives us the chance to go up having beaten every side in this section.
“Both sides showed their fighting qualities in getting out of sticky situations in our respective semi-finals and everyone’s ready for another exciting contest which could come down to the wire, with the derby element adding an extra edge to it.
“We will undoubtedly need to be at our best on the day, but our young players proved in Croke Park – and against Tipp in the semi – that they relish the challenge of big games and pressure situations rather than hiding or being daunted by them. Hopefully that recent experience of playing a big final in Dublin will stand to our team.
“Management and players have all worked hard over the past four months to give ourselves this opportunity of promotion and a trophy, so we will give everything to make that chance count and take this necessary next step towards where we want to be,” Caroline added.
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