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Who will make your Irish News Ulster All-Star Camogie team?

Down keeper Catherine McGourty against Antrim at Owenbeg during the National Camogie Leagues Division 2 Final on Saturday 19th June 2021. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
As a guide for readers selecting their Irish News Allstars camogie team of the year, Seamas McAleenan has picked up out some of the top performers of the year from across Ulster and compiled a shortlist for each position...

THE appearance of two Ulster teams in an All-Ireland Intermediate final last December coupled with two more in the All-Ireland Junior decider had raised the bar significantly for inter-county camogie in the province.

There was no automatic promotion to the senior championship for intermediate champions Down, but they demanded it because they were ambitious. They went on to prove the nay-sayers wrong by winning the National League Division Two title in another showdown with Antrim before competing with the top brass in the senior championship during the summer and retaining their status albeit through a relegation play-off with Westmeath.

Antrim meanwhile took the lessons from their defeat to Down last season and put in the necessary off-season work that closed the gap on their neighbours. The Saffrons ran Down close in both the National League Division Two final and Ulster senior decider.

It left the Saffrons well placed to launch an assault on the All-Ireland Intermediate championship and with superb performances in the three knock-out games they wrote their names below Down on the Jack McGrath Cup.

There are now two Ulster teams in the All-Ireland senior championship for the first time in almost four decades and the quality of camogie from both is probably at an all-time high.

Derry also improved this season and topped their qualification group in the Intermediate championship before a surprise exit to Meath at the quarter-final stages as injuries hit them in key positions.

Meanwhile, Armagh lost both the Division Three league and All-Ireland Junior finals to Wexford and Cavan were winners of the Division Four league title. In any other year those would have been milestones for the province.

It will be very difficult therefore to select an Ulster team of the year. Indeed I found it difficult to narrow down the selections to three players for each position and it might be necessary to shift players around in final selections.

I have gone with four goalkeepers, all of whom contributed massively to their team this year. Down's converted forward Catherine McGourty and Armagh's Ciarraí Devlin were in the mix last year, while Niamh Gribbin again impressed with Derry. Antrim, meanwhile, introduced us to Cáitríona Graham and the Ahoghill player had a superb season.

In defence, there were many strong performances from full-back Dearbhla Magee who moved to midfield in the championship games and even got in on the scoring. The Savage sisters missed out on the All-Ireland Intermediate title with Down last year but also impressed in various forms of their back-line as the summer progressed and old reliable Karen McMullan was badly missed when they suffered their only heavy defeat of the year to Offaly.

Antrim had to cope with injuries in their defence through the year and players were moved to accommodate. Eventually they found a solid central line with Niamh Donnelly at full-back and Caoimhe Conlon at centre-half. Others seemed to thrive in that formation and it was a good platform for supplying the ammunition for a talented forward line.

The return of Gemma McCann offered Armagh a lot at the back while it was the Cavan half-back line of Rosie Crowe-McKeever, Erin Galligan and Aiosha O'Reilly that did best for them in the Division Four campaign. Louise Dougan returned to Derry as a regular centre-half back and all was going well until her injury in the quarter-final that was really the end of the line for Derry

Midfield combinations changed for Antrim through the campaign before the pairing of Nicole O'Neill and captain Lucia McNaughton emerged. It was a potent combination.

Down retained their usual midfield pairing of Aoife Keown and Paula O'Hagan throughout league and Ulster championship until the unavailability of the latter at the start of the senior championship.

Armagh moved Leanne Donnelly back from forwards to team up with the returned Michele McArdle and it also was a useful enough pairing while Cavan shifted the Keenaghan sisters between forwards and midfield as the occasion demanded.

There was no more prolific forward in the senior championship this year than the 2020 Ulster Player of the Year Niamh Mallon who ran up 1-44 in five games against defences that sometimes chose to double mark her or often where Down had to bring a forward back as a sweeper.

Sorcha McCartan commuted from Cork and was Player of the Match in the League final with a goal and four points while big plays from Sara Louise Carr towards the end of key games swung the result in favour of her team. And then there was Down's find of the season, corner-forward Anna Rogan whose work-rate and odd goal here and there made a difference.

Áine Magill was very much the young Player of the Year with scintillating displays for Antrim minors. She burst on to the senior team with four points from play against Kilkenny in the opening group game in the championship. She kept the jersey and scored in every game including the All-Ireland final, also against Kilkenny, her top performance coming in the semi-final win over Galway.

Maeve Kelly, Róisín McCormick and Cáitrín Dobbin all shone for the Saffrons through the season although it would be easy to ignore the hard work converted defender Amy Boyle got through at centre-forward to open the space for her colleagues who were more prolific finishers.

Ciara Donnelly made the team of the year in 2020 and she has to be considered yet again as her scoring alone kept Armagh's show on the road. Ten points from 1-11 in the All-Ireland final again underlined her class and importance to the team. Ciara Hill and Eimear Smyth are others to consider from the Armagh forward line, while Reagan Fay at just 18 is a star of the future for Tyrone.

I have put together a shortlist for each position but feel free to add your own if you think any players have been overlooked. You can make your camogie selection at irishnews.com/allstars where you can also select your Player of the Year.

Goalkeepers: Cáitríona Graham (Antrim), Ciarraí Devlin (Armagh), Niamh Gribbin (Derry), Catherine McGourty (Down)

Defenders: Caoimhe Conlon, Niamh Donnelly, Chloe Drain, Maria Lynn, Colleen Patterson (Antrim), Gemma McCann, Gráinne McWilliams (Armagh), Rosie Crowe-McKeever, Erin Galligan (Cavan), Louise Dougan, Aoife Ní Chaiside (Derry), Cáitríona Caldwell, Dearbhla Magee, Karen McMullan, Blanaid Savage, Deirbhle Savage (Down),

Midfielders : Lucia McNaughton, Nicole O'Neill (Antrim), Leanne Donnelly, Michelle McArdle (Armagh), Clodagh Keenaghan (Cavan), Áine McAllister (Derry), Aoife Keown, Paula O'Hagan (Down)

Forwards: Amy Boyle, Cáitrín Dobbin, Maeve Kelly, Áine Magill, Róisín McCormick (Antrim), Ciara Donnelly, Ciara Hill, Eimear Smyth (Armagh), Niamh Keenaghan (Cavan), Shannon Graham, Therese Mellon, Dervla O'Kane (Derry), Lauren Clarke, Sara Louise Graffin, Niamh Mallon, Aimee McAleenan, Sorcha McCartan, Anna Rogan (Down), Reagan Fay (Tyrone)

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