Four Ulster counties bidding for All-Ireland ladies football final berths
Lidl National Football League Division Two semi-finals: Tipperary v Armagh (Sunday, Coralstown/Kinnegad, 1pm)
ARMAGH and Tipperary go head-to-head in a mouth-watering Division Two semi-final clash on Sunday for a place in next month's final.
Both counties were among the favourites for Division Two honours and promotion this season – Armagh having been relegated from the top tier last year and eager to get straight back up again and Tipperary who are establishing themselves as one of the up and coming teams in the country with league success from Division Three to Two and an All-Ireland intermediate title last year too to go through 2017 unbeaten.
The reward on offer on Sunday, even at this semi-final stage is huge – a big name will bow out on Sunday - for the winner, their promotion hopes live on, for the losing county, they face another season in an extremely competitive Division Two league with either Cavan or Waterford from the other semi joining them, relegated Kerry from Division One and Tyrone who did not make the top four. Of course, making the final does not guarantee promotion either, with only the winner going up.
When the sides met in the first league game of the season at the end of January, Armagh let slip a seven point second half lead to lose by two, 2-12 to 2-10, an unanswered 1-6 from Tipperary doing the damage.
Orchard managers Fionnula McAtamney and Lorraine McCaffrey will be keen to make sure history doesn't repeat itself. For the management duo, each game has been about steadily progressing and the league has produced that and they have shown their serious title and promotion credentials.
They are also boosted by the return of stalwart Caroline O'Hanlon, who is back from Australia's Gold Coast and the Commonwealth Games where she captained Northern Ireland's netball team to eighth place, however, Tiarna Grimes is still out after picking up a shoulder injury against Westmeath and other than a long term injury to Louise Kenny, the rest of the squad are good to go and McCaffrey says they are looking forward to it.
“It was a tight game at the start of the year and both teams have taken different journeys since then on their way to the semi-finals and this is a match that we are looking forward to, said McCaffrey.
“It's all going to be about on the day and who has learned the most from the first game. We were very disappointed to lose that first day in what was our first game as a management team and with the players.
“Our aim was to learn game on game and we have had a number of blips and defeats along the way but we are satisfied with how we have improved and are continuing to learn. Sunday will be a checkpoint to see just where we are.”
Both counties will treat this game will like a final. There will be nowhere to hide for either team, who will have to bring everything they have to the table. Tipperary lost for the first time in 24 games against Waterford, their remarkable unbeaten run that stretched the beginning of 2017 coming to an end and while they will be somewhat disappointed to lose that record this is the game that counts.
“Once you reach the knockout stages, from here on in every game you play becomes championship football for the rest of the year. In the league's round robin stages you can get away with a defeat or two and use it to try new things and look at players but from now it is knockout football,” added McCaffrey.
Lidl National Football League Division Two semi-finals: Waterford v Cavan (Sunday, St Brendan's Park Birr, 1pm)
CAVAN will be hoping to make it back-to-back Division Two finals but first must get past Waterford in Sunday's semi-final in Birr.
The Ulster side missed out on silverware and more crucially promotion to Division One to Westmeath after a replay last season. First step in getting back to a final was finishing in the top four and they did that with a final day victory over Tyrone, taking that fourth spot at the expense of the Red Hands.
They will also be keen to right a few wrongs against their Munster opposition. The two counties met just a few weeks ago and despite leading by three points early in the second half, Cavan lost by 12 points. They failed to score after Bronagh Sheridan had given James Daly's side a 1-6 to 1-3 lead shortly after the resumption while Waterford hit 3-6 without reply as two quick goals from Sinead Ryan and Maria Delahunty swung the game in the Munster side's favour.
And while Sunday is a new day and a new game with much more at stake, Cavan know they were much better than that defeat and now is a chance to make amends when it really counts.
Waterford were one of five teams battling it out throughout the seven rounds of the league for a top four finish and they have quietly yet effectively gone about their business.
They lost their opening game to Tyrone but have not looked back since and finishing top have beaten Cavan, Armagh and Tipperary along the way.
They too are an up and coming team and regularly show that in the Munster championship and like Cavan and the other two semi-finalists will feel they have what it takes to reach and win the final.
Cavan have the players to step up and make their mark on the game and Daly will need every one of those and the Armagh man, who managed the Orchard County to back-to-back Division Three and Division Two league successes in 2014 and 2015, knows they need to up their performance from the Tyrone game.
“Five teams were fighting for four places throughout the league and we are grateful to be one of the four. Waterford finished top of the table and that speaks for itself. We would be disappointed with a few of our performances along the way and against Waterford would be one of them,” said Daly.
“Fitness played a factor in that and it was the first game back for a few players who had been out injured and we were up by one point with 15 minutes to go and lost by 12 and we were very disappointed with such a big loss. But we have worked very hard since then on game plan and things like that and we are in a much better place now.
“In a semi-final you have to up it a bit and we need to step up from the Tyrone game. We won by nine but I felt it should have been more but having said that we made a lot of changes in the last 15 minutes and that game was about getting the win.
“We are looking forward to what will be a big game but we are confident we can get the right result and hopefully we do and get to the final.”
Lidl National Football League Division Three semi-final: Down v Meath (Sunday, Inniskeen, 1pm)
TWELVE months ago, Down avoided relegation from Division Three by beating Limerick, in the only game they won in 2017.
Fast forward a year and the Mourne County are preparing for a Division Three semi-final in what has been an impressive turnaround but one that manager Ryan McShane, his backroom team and Down's county players have worked incredibly hard for.
Their goal at the start of the league was to finish in the top four. That achieved, with a third place finish, their next goal is to see off Meath in Sunday's semi-final.
The sides met in the opening game of the season with Meath winning comfortably 4-13 to 2-2 and on that result it looked like it was going to be another tough year for Down. However, they defeated Roscommon, who were only one of two teams to beat Meath so far this year, and followed that up with a victory over Offaly and suddenly they were making major inroads in the league table. Six more points came their way not as they would have wanted but with Longford and Leitrim conceding, Then, they fought back from seven points down in the last five minutes against Kildare to win, securing that top four finish and they are not done yet.
McShane's charges go into Sunday's game eager to show Meath a different side to the one they met back in January.
“We have a task ahead of us against Meath. We played them back in the first game of the league and they gave us a bit of a lesson but there has been a steady improvement in Down since then,” he said.
“It has taken a bit of time to get things settled but in all the time I have been around, I haven't seen a team as competitive for places and we are looking forward to the semi-final.
He also hopes his players draw on the character they showed in that comeback against Kildare.
“Our main goal at the start of the league was to finish in the top four. Down finished second from bottom last year and won just one game. This year we targeted the top four and we have worked very hard to get there. Now we have set ourselves another goal and that is Meath, and we are taking it one game at a time.”
Battling it out in the other semi-final for a place in the Division Three final are Wexford and Kildar, who are in action at Stradbally (2pm).
Lidl National Football League Division Four semi-final: Antrim v Wicklow (Sunday, Inniskeen, 3pm)
ANTRIM face the toughest of semi-finals against favourites Wicklow as they chase down a Division Four final spot on Sunday at Inniskeen.
The Saffrons finished fourth in the table pitting them against unbeaten Wicklow, who finished top of the table a full quota of points from their seven games. When the sides met in the earlier rounds, Wicklow inflicted a heavy 3-16 to 1-3 defeat on their semi-final opponents and certainly interim manager Benny Marron and his players will be hoping they can acquit themselves much better this time around.
They failed to make the semi-finals in 2017 so despite a mixed campaign, with three wins, a walkover, and three losses, and one that also saw manager Seamus McKenna depart for personal reasons, they will be happy to have made the semi-finals, a target no doubt at the start of the year. That first round win over Fermanagh turned out to be more crucial than anyone could have imagined, as that head-to-head result saw the Saffrons take that last semi-final berth at the expense of the Erne County.
Manager Marron, who was part of the Queen's ladies management team that saw O'Connor Shield success last month, has been impressed with the commitment so far from the players.
“The girls have been great and the standard is very high. They have good fitness levels, playing with two or three teams, and that allows me to concentrate on ball work and shaping the team,” said Marron.
“There is no real pressure on us – Wicklow are the team who are unbeaten. Antrim took a heavy defeat when they played Wicklow earlier in the league and I don't think that result is a true reflection of the team and where the players are. We sold ourselves short in the league and I think the player are lacking a bit of confidence in themselves and their ability, and that is what we are trying to address as well as rejig a few things and hopefully we can show in the semi-final just what we can do and give a good account of ourselves. Coming out on the right end of the result could change their season and we have nothing to lose.”
The other semi-final sees Louth, who finished second in the table, face third place Limerick at Portarlington (2pm)
Lidl National Football League Division One semi-finals
HOLDERS Cork face Mayo in the Division One semi-finals in the second game of a double header at St Brendan's Park Birr on Sunday (3pm). At the same time in Coralstown/Kinnegad, Dublin and Galway go head-to-head in the other semi for a place in the Division One decider on May 6.
Cork have won the last five Division One titles and will be favourites to appear in an 11 successive final. This meeting is a repeat of the 2016 final, which Cork won by three points. Mayo put together a couple of late wins and coupled with being awarded the three points from their defeat to Kerry because the Kingdom played unregistered players, the Connacht side squeezed into the top four, finishing third.
The Division One league title is one has evaded All-Ireland champions Dublin. They have never won it and their last, and only, final appearance was in 2014, losing to Cork. Galway appeared in the 2015, losing to Cork and have qualified for these semi-finals at the expense of Donegal, the Tir Chonaill county. Galway are the only team to have beaten Mick Bohan's Dublin this year in the earlier league rounds. This should be another great battle between the side and a repeat result would be another shock.