St Mary's, Magherafelt and St Ronan's, Lurgan meet in MacRory Cup final
Danske Bank Bank MacRory Cup final: St Mary's, Magherafelt v St Ronan's, Lurgan
(Monday, Athletic Grounds, 1.15pm, live on BBC NI)
A REFRESHINGLY new pairing will share centre stage in the Danske Bank MacRory Cup final at the Athletic Grounds this afternoon.
St Mary's, Magherafelt – first-time winners of the premier Ulster schools' football title at the third attempt last year – face St Ronan's, Lurgan, semi-finalists every year since the school came into existence in 2015.
It's an unlikely pairing in some sense, but entirely predictable in another. Why wouldn't a school that has made the semi-final for two successive seasons, not break down the next barrier to reach the final? And why shouldn't the holders make it back to the final?
This Magherafelt group lost finals in their early years in Ulster competition – to their neighbours St Patrick's, Maghera. They didn't flourish at Rannafast level, but making the grade at MacRory level last year has re-invigorated the group and they have breezed into this final, scoring 19 goals in six games.
Their only defeat came in the MacCormack Cup semi-final against Maghera in late November when they were missing key players.
They avenged that defeat in the MacRory semi-final three weeks ago in Bellaghy, when they were defensively sound apart from a spell right after Daniel Bradley scored a goal from a first minute penalty for Maghera.
Once they got sweeper Ciaran Doyle in front of Lorcán McWilliams and Giuseppe Lupari, they were able to cut out the first-time ball to McWilliams or Alex Doherty and the whole team prospered.
Bradley and Conall Devlin then came deep and were able to run directly through the centre of Maghera's defence. St Ronan's will have noted that and may not be so easily broken down.
The Lurgan outfit were a bit more under the cosh against the directness of St Patrick's, Armagh in their semi-final and it took a very late goal from Eoin McConville to snatch a one-point victory.
That was St Ronan's 14th goal in a seven-match winning run which included a comfortable enough win over Maghera in the MacCormack Cup final, although little can be read into that game as the Derry team fielded less than their strongest team.
Nevertheless, the win and back-to-back league titles will have added to the self-confidence of this Lurgan team who will look to replicate the approach their opponents took in last year's final.
Few rated Magherafelt's chance against St Colman's that day but they delivered in style – 19 points leaving St Colman's looking like the team that couldn't cope with the occasion.
St Ronan's were close to a Rannafast Cup final appearance with this squad two seasons ago, but were pipped by St Macartan's in the semi-final. Patrician, Carrickmacross dominated that year's final and they almost took the Lurgan boys out in this season's MacRory quarter-final with a strong comeback.
McConville has made a big impact in the two knock-out games, scoring 0-7 against Carricmacross in the quarter-final and then 1-7 in the Armagh derby. However, there is plenty of variety up front and his cousin Ryan, Rioghan Meehan, Tiarnan Kelly and Leo Monteiro are all consistent scorers.
Allstar Jamie Haughey forms part of a strong half-back line, who will need to be vigilant against a clever Convent forward line, all of whom featured strongly in last season's win.
Whatever the result today, a record will be equalled that has stood for over half-a-century or another that has survived 44 years.
Not since St Columb's, Derry in 1965-66 has a school successfully defended a maiden victory in the MacRory and not since 1973-74 has two new names been written on the MacRory Cup in successive years.
A word of warning for St Mary's with that last statistic. The 1973 winners – St Michael's, Enniskillen – lost the 1974 final in a replay to Omagh CBS, who claimed their first crown.