By Richard Bullick
Armagh marched into the All Ireland semi-finals with a stunning 23-point demolition of outclassed Laois in Tullamore on Saturday, classy captain Caroline O’Hanlon leading the way with 2-6.
However this latest highly impressive victory for James Daly’s side came at a high cost with magnificent corner back Mairead Tennyson suffering a suspected dislocated shoulder late on which could end her season.
She and the Armagh management face an anxious wait for clarity on the injury and possible lay-off but losing the Silverbridge star would be a big blow particularly after her exceptional performance in this TG4 Championship quarter-final.
Fit, fast, ferocious and always alert to danger, the relatively diminutive Tennyson was out in front for almost every ball played in by a Laois side whose hearts she broke and it must have been a close call between her and O’Hanlon for Player of the Match.
Although Niamh Henderson and Kelly Mallon had earlier left the field with significant knocks, up until Tennyson’s departure it had looked like the perfect day at the office for an Armagh team which made light of the lengthy gap since their last competitive match.
Getting Laois was a good draw on paper but Armagh had to make it count and the fear was that they might struggle to recapture the intensity shown in the famous Ulster final victory over Monagan in Clones six weeks ago.
But All Star skipper O’Hanlon hit the net in the very first minute and Armagh never really looked back as, with a strong wind behind them, the Orchard crew pushed on to take an interval lead of 14 points.
Armagh’s starting front eight all got on the scoresheet during the game along with sub Siobhan Feeney, who confidently struck two points after being brought on in the full forward line as Daly used all five subs before the Tennyson injury.
Like her successor, former captain Mags McAlinden bagged a brace of goals with the other coming from Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville who, like Mallon, Feeney and Fionnuala McKenna, kicked two points with one apiece from Henderson, Sinead McCleary and Dromintee’s Aoife McCoy.
But the defenders deserve mentions too with the likes of schoolgirl Louise Kenny, stalwart Sharon Reel and sisters Caoimhe Morgan and Niamh Marley all battling tenaciously to stave off the opposition threat.
Rebecca O’Reilly got her first action of the season in place of injured Carrickcruppen clubmate Marian McGuinness and will have benefited from playing the full hour while Dromintee’s Shauna Grey got more than a half after replacing Henderson who had taken a bang to the head.
There were effective cameos from Feeney, regular supersub Siobhan Mackle and Ballyhegan newcomer Eve Lavery while Cailin Duffy also got a brief run near the end when Reel was withdrawn.
Having won their previous 12 games this season, Armagh commandingly dispelled any notions this could be unlucky 13 as they recorded a fourth successive Championship victory over a team that had spent the spring playing two National League levels above them.
Since taking the Division Three title with a 100 percent record, Armagh have defeated Tyrone by 15 points, Donegal by six, Monaghan by nine and now beaten Leinster finalists Laois by the biggest margin of all.
After a poignant minute’s silence for the late Ann Daly, Laois actually had the first opportunity but O’Hanlon’s goal inside 60 seconds settled Armagh and McKenna soon added a point before hitting the near post after a great ball from her captain.
Mallon pointed twice in the space of three minutes and McConville also got on the board in the opening quarter as Tennyson, helped by one brilliant block by Marley, kept the opposition scoreless at the other end.
Henderson joined the list of scorers before Laois finally registered in the 21st minute, though only after Tennyson had been obstructed, but undeterred Armagh went further ahead as lovely hands from O’Hanlon put McAlinden through for a goal.
A minute later McAlinden turned provider for McConville to net number three but the crucial interventions at the other end by Kenny, Marley and Reel were equally noteworthy in consolidating Armagh’s scoreboard dominance.
McKenna and O’Hanlon kicked frees from their respective sides late in the half before a dazed Henderson was led from the field and Laois actually had the last word with their second point to make it 3-7 to 0-2 at the interval.
Early efforts in the second half from McKenna and McConville fell short into the wind but O’Hanlon soon showed how it should be done only for Laois to reply with a point after a Morgan ball out of defence didn’t clear her opponent in the breeze.
McCleary, now playing midfield with O’Hanlon, was increasingly influential and sent McCoy away for a good point before doing the same for McConville to sandwich a fourth score from Laois.
That was McConville’s last act before being replaced by Feeney and although O’Hanlon added another point, Laois posted the next two either side of Mackle coming on for a slightly misfiring McKenna.
It was hardly a wobble given that Armagh still led by 14 points but any nerves were quelled by a brilliant goal from majestic captain O’Hanlon who then put over a free before Laois scored again.
Feeney got her first point just after Lavery replaced a limping Mallon and although Laois landed a free after Armagh were wasteful up front, a dancing Mackle won a free for O’Hanlon to convert as Reel gave way to Duffy.
McCleary set up Clann Eireann clubmate McAlinden for a goal which went in off her face and deservedly got on the board herself after a brilliant claim by O’Hanlon. Laois scored a point between McCoy wides and Lavery drew a blank before the skipper scored her sixth.
Armagh were long since home and dry but disaster struck in the seventh minute of injury-time when Tennyson fell awkwardly on her shoulder leaving Daly’s side to play out the remaining 152 seconds with 14 players though her absence next time out would be a bigger deal.
A second point from Feeney rounded off the scoring but, partly due to the Tennyson injury and also reflecting this team’s ambitions, Orchard celebrations at the final whistle were relatively muted. This is a team on a mission.
ARMAGH: K Daly; M Tennyson, C Morgan, L Kenny; S Reel, N Marley, R O’Reilly; N Henderson (0-1), C O’Hanlon (capt; 2-6, 2f); S McCleary (0-1), F McKenna (0-2, 1f), A McCoy (0-1); L McConville (1-2), K Mallon (0-2), M McAlinden (2-0). Subs: S Grey for Henderson (33 mins), S Feeney (0-2) for McConville (40), S Mackle for McKenna (46), E Lavery for Mallon (53), C Duffy for Reel (58).