Armagh girls begin defence away to Down

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SEVERAL of Clann Eireann’s finest will be missing this weekend as Armagh ladies return to action for the first time since lifting the Mary Quinn Cup in Croke Park.

Sunday’s National League opener away to Down has come too early for Orchard county captain Mags McAlinden and fullback Laura Brown, who won Player of the Match in last October’s All Ireland Intermediate final.

McAlinden hasn’t trained due to a recurring knee problem while full back Brown will be making a delayed start to the season to allow several niggling injury issues to clear up.

By contrast, the match has come too late for full forward Shauna O’Hagan who appears to have followed through on her long-standing threat to retire from inter-county football though there has been no official announcement to that effect.

If last October’s All Ireland Intermediate final does prove to be Shauna’s swansong, hitting the back of the Croke Park net on her last appearance in the county colours certainly constitutes going out on a high.

Hopefully inspirational skipper McAlinden will be back in action soon but the absence of O’Hagan and herself removes two vastly experienced players from the Armagh forward line and puts the onus on others to step up.

One of those in the spotlight will be St Peter’s teenager Ciara Lennon who, along with this weekend’s stand-in skipper, All Star Caroline O’Hanlon, hit 2-2 in last season’s National League victory over Sunday’s opponents.

Down will be keen to avenge both that heavy defeat and a clear cut loss to Armagh in an All Ireland qualifier last July and new manager Benji Ward has tempted several seasoned campaigners to return to the fray.

However, like the Orchard crew, the Mourne women will be without their captain from last season as Irish rugby international Eliza Downey is touring the world and her loss is a considerable blow to their hopes of emulating Armagh’s glory run of 2012.

Clann Eireann backboned Armagh’s Ulster and All Ireland Intermediate double last year and three of their six starters from Croke Park will be on duty this Sunday – goalkeeper Catherine McAlinden, midfielder Sinead McCleary and rising star Niamh Henderson.