Armagh can provide sobering end to Antrim fairytale in Croke Park final

Armagh have already beaten Antrim three times this season and are favourites to make it a fourth in Croke Park on Sunday
Séamas McAleenan

Glen Dimplex Premier Junior championship final: Armagh v Antrim (Sunday, Croke Park, 12pm, live on RTÉ 2)

THIS will be the first Glen Dimplex Premier Junior championship final in the 54 years of the competition that will guarantee an Ulster winner. Of course that could not have happened until around a decade ago when winning the provincial championship was the only way to get through to the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Armagh, after winning the 2020 championship that had to be played without the second teams from the senior counties and then finishing runners-up to Wexford in Croke Park last year, naturally carried the favourites' tag into this season's league and championship.

However, they lost the opening league game by a single point to Cavan and that meant they missed out on a spot in the league final that Cavan eventually won.

Since then the Orchard county have won every game they played, including three head-to-heads with Antrim.

The league encounter finished 0-8 to 0-6, but they were more emphatic winners when it came around to the Ulster championship final. That finished 0-13 to 0-7 with the Donnelly sisters (Ciara, 0-6 and Leanne 0-3) contributing nine points between them.

By the time the teams met for the third time, a championship group game in Dunloy at the end of June, Antrim had changed significantly. Gone to the senior panel were cousins Katie Laverty and Cassie McArthur and there were consequent switches in midfield and attack.

The Saffrons played with the aid of a stiff breeze and took the game to Armagh to lead by 0-12 to 0-5 at half-time. Although Armagh almost wiped out that lead in the early minutes of the second half, Antrim battled on and lost by 1-18 to 1-16.

However, the performance that day probably galvanised the Antrim team and convinced them that they could reach Croke Park.

They played the final group game against Limerick without three of their more experienced players who were attending a wedding. Instead younger players came in and fired the team to a 0-20 to 0-5 victory.

The three players missing in that game returned for the semi-final a fortnight ago. Bríd Magill and Tara O'Neill two of those who started in their absence still found places on the team, while the introduction of others who had featured against Limerick were key to keeping Antrim in a game that extended into a marathon of two and a half hours before Megan McGarry's long distance free settled the argument at 1-16 to 0-18.

There have been plenty of scores in each of those last three games for the Saffrons, although the concession of frees against Armagh and Clare meant that plenty of scores were also posted against them.

Armagh's semi-final was an arm-wrestle against a disciplined Cavan defence who relied on the quick counter-attack to grab scores and keep Armagh struggling. That struggle eventually turned in their favour during the last quarter when they hit an unanswered 1-8 to pull away.

However, as Ciara Donnelly stated afterwards, it did not feel like a winning margin of seven points.

Armagh will face a similar opponent to Cavan in the final, a team that does not give up. However looking back through the score-lines all year, Antrim's defence would not be as tight as Cavan's.

The Donnelly sisters are no longer the main score-getters for Armagh, although both will make their contribution.

Instead the experienced Jenny Curry is back in Croke Park having posted 1-3 in that tough semi-final, while promising teenager Sinéad Quinn picked up the Player of the Match as well as shooting two points. Rachel Merry is also back in the team after a year out with injury and is another source of scores.

Curry, Quinn and Merry are three who were not in the All-Ireland final panel a year ago. The probable starting line-out will feature just eight of the starting team from 2021. That may be a significant turnover, but most of those coming into the team have a lot of inter-county experience.

None of the Antrim players have played in Croke Park before, although a number of them have won minor All-Ireland medals in 2018 and last year and the vast majority would have played outside their province at schools' level.

Antrim have been the story of the year, but their fairytale is unlikely to continue in Croke Park. Armagh have already beaten them three times this year and there is little to suggest they won't make it four.