By Sally Rafferty
In what was a thrilling final in the All-Ireland Premier Junior decider at Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday, Armagh got over the line against a battling Cavan side in a game where the Donnelly sisters, Ciara and Leanne, grabbed the main headlines.
The Eglish pair, who started off their camogie careers in Granemore and threw their loyalties behind their native county when moving home to Eglish in Tyrone, were without doubt the stars of the show on a day when camogie skills, thrills and spills, from both teams, were from the top drawer.
Cavan started the brighter side and at the 15-minute break were four points to the good and looked every sign of the likely winners. Cavan did all the attacking in the initial stages of the game and opened the scoring in the first minute when Orla Smith scored a point, the same player going narrowly wide one minute later.
Armagh’s Ciara Hill was battling hard in the midfield berth with some great fielding but Armagh’s first effort in the fourth minute from the stick of Eimear Smyth went side of the right hand post.
Ciarrai Devlin came to Armagh’s rescue in the sixth minute with a good save from a goal-bound strike. It was appropriately the ultimate Player of the Match Ciara Donnelly who opened Armagh’s account in the eighth minute with a fabulous point from the left wing. Her younger sister Leanne followed up one minute later with an outstanding score to raise Armagh’s second white flag after a skilful run down the left wing to put the Orchard county in front against the run of play.
Cavan’s Roisin O’Keefe sent over their second point on the 10th minute after some excellent team play from the Breffni girls. Ciara Donnelly was in top form and scored her second point again from the left wing in the 11th minute. Cavan continued to push forward and Shanise Fitzsimmons scored a fine point as the Cavan front six continued to cause havoc for Armagh’s defence.
Louise Toner, in the centre of the Armagh’s defence, was having a very solid game making a number of excellent clearances while Sinead Kieran also was in control of her department. Gemma McCann was battling well in the corner and also made some solid strikes upfield.
Cavan’s Sinead McKenna scored an excellent point in the 14th minute and as the Breffni cailini pushed forward, their midfielder Rosie Crowe-McKeever sent the ball to the net after a goalmouth tussle. When the ball fell to the Breffni sharp-shooter she made no mistake to make the score at the first water-break Cavan 1-4 Armagh 0-3.
At this stage of the game Cavan were playing the much better camogie, they were direct and out in front with excellent teamwork and things looked ominous for the Orchard camp.
However as has been seen this year in so many games, the water break appeared to regenerate the Armagh girls and for the remaining quarter they dominated exchanges with the Donnelly show particularly kicking into gear.
Armagh’s midfield duo of Ashlinn McMahon and Ciara Hill started to dominate proceedings and in the fourth minute after the break Ciara Donnelly sent over a ‘45’. Two minutes later Armagh joint-captain Rachel Murray found herself in some space after a poor Cavan puck-out came her way and she sent the ball over the bar for Armagh’s fifth point.
Ellie McKee won good possession in the 23rd minute which led to a free for the Orchard girls which Ciara Donnelly slotted over. Leanne Donnelly, from the resulting puck-out, showed her outstanding skills with a great solo run down the left wing to send over a lovely point.
Ciara Donnelly was upended close to the corner flag in the 26th minute and scored a magnificent free from an almost impossible angle. Three minutes later as Armagh continued to dominate, Ciara Donnelly again raised the white flag when sending over a free. She again showed her class as the half time approached with a superb point from a tight angle when she had goal on her mind, to leave the interval score Cavan 1-4 Armagh 0-10.
Eimear O’Kane came on at the half time stage for Ashlinn Harvey and immediately got stuck into the game with a great piece of determined defending in the third minute, earning herself a free to clear the danger.
Ciara Donnelly was again on target with an excellent second minute point to stretch Armagh’s lead to four points.
However as in the first half Cavan seemed to start the brighter and in the fifth minute Rosie Crowe-McKeever was again the nemesis with an excellent goal from a groundstroke into the left corner of the net to bring the margin back to the minimum.
With Cavan tails up, Orla Smith sent over another point to level things.
Armagh’s Gemma McCann found herself the recipient of a yellow card after an over-exuberant tackle on an opponent and as the game appeared to be swinging Cavan’s way, Sinead McKenna sent over a point to put them in front.
Rachel Merry levelled proceedings with a point from a free, which she had won herself on the right wing. Cavan continued to pressurise and McKenna again sent over another fine point in the 44th minute to put her team in front again.
However it was that player Ciara Donnelly again that followed up with Armagh’s next score, a pointed ‘45’ in the 45th minute. The younger Donnelly, Leanne, again showed her talents with an excellent score in the 46th minute to bring the second interval scoreline to Cavan 2-7 Armagh 0-14, a one-point advantage for the Orchard girls.
Catherine Beagan came in for Ashlinn McMahon going into the final quarter. Leanne Donnelly started proceedings after the water break as she had finished before the break with a great point from her left side. Cavan’s Orla Smith saw a yellow card as tackles came in with the end of the game in sight and everything to play for.
Hannah French came in for Armagh with Mary Meehan making way and Laura Smyth came in for Eimear Smyth. Cavan were not for quitting and it was their sharp-shooter Sinead McKenna again who scored a goal in the 53rd minute to bring the score to Cavan 3-7 Armagh 0-15, a one-point lead for the Breffi team with just seven minutes remaining.
As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, or alternatively “cometh the hour cometh the (wo)man.” It was going to take leadership to stand tall and stand tall is what one of the veterans of the team (albeit with plenty of seasons left) Ciara Donnelly did.
As the game entered its last five minutes of normal time, it was there for whomever wanted it most and it was Donnelly the elder again who stepped up and sent over an excellent point in the 55th minute set up by Niamh Forker who had joined the fray for Ellie McKee.
Donnelly senior again showed herself head and shoulders above, two minutes later with another outstanding point showing her hunger for victory, having been on the losing side in Armagh’s last appearance in the All-Ireland Junior decider against Carlow in 2016.
Laura Smyth won a vital possession in the 59th minute and earned a free which was sent over by Ciara Donnelly to make the score Cavan 3-7 Armagh 0-18, a two-point lead for the Orchard cailini.
However a two-point lead going into the end of a match has been found by many teams to be a lead too little.
Niamh Forker was showing her influence and her 59th minute strike went agonisingly wide and with a Rachel Merry free just into injury time also going narrowly wide, it looked like Armagh’s day might have a cruel twist yet.
Armagh needed one more score to secure at least some security and who else but Ciara Donnelly to pop up two minutes into injury time to send over her 13th point of the game?
Cavan to their credit threw everything to grab an equalizer and but for an outstanding save on the line by Louise Toner in the dying seconds would have grabbed their last-gasp equaliser.
However with the sound of the final whistle from Tipperary’s Mike Ryan the Armagh girls were signalled as 2020 All-Ireland Junior Champions and the cheers of delight from the small but vociferous Armagh delegation in Breffni Park, and from the many supporters connecting digitally from across the Orchard County and beyond, brought Armagh’s 2020 season to a successful close.
Well done to both teams on an excellent and exciting game of camogie which had supporters glued to their seats until the very end. Hard luck to a gallant Cavan team who came so near to adding their second All-Ireland title to the season which would have been a history making achievement, indeed the same squad competing in two All-Ireland finals in the one year is most likely already a historic achievement.
It should be noted at this stage, the enormous development work that has been going into the Breffni county camogie set-up over the past decade to see Cavan clubs and county back competing at the levels it had done in the 90s and Armagh native Gerard Gribben from Ballymacnab will have his handprints all over this Cavan resurgence having been a key coaching officer in Cavan a few years back.
Well done to the Armagh team and management of Michael Murphy and Padraig Dowdall who have shaped this young, developing team into a tight unit with great team spirit.
Armagh County Board also deserve mention for their work in the behind the scenes efforts to prepare their team, with special reference to county chairman Aidan Mallon and county secretary Mary McBride. Both of these dedicated officers have indicated their intentions to step down from the county executive table, having both served two years in office. If both do step down they will be doing so on a high, haven’t brought an All-Ireland title to Armagh and closed a 27-year gap from when the Orchard county last won the Premier Junior crown.