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Ardrahan make their return to All-Ireland semi-final action this weekend writes Darren Kelly of the Connacht Tribune just two years since gracing Croke Park when they take on new Leinster champions Mullinavat from Kilkenny in Moneygall this Sunday (2.30pm). It’s hard to believe that 2-8 to 0-12 final loss to Derry’s Eoghan Rua in 2012 was at intermediate level but Mike Carr’s charges have been on a rollercoaster run since clinching their first ever County senior title in just two seasons.
Many thought that their 2-16 to 2-12 quarter-final success over Castlegar would prove their 2013 triumph but they proved doubters wrong by knocking off the ‘Big Two’ Killimor and Mullagh to take the Catherine Donnellan Cup.  While they needed to hold on over defending champions Killimor in the semi-final after leading by 12 points, they announced their arrival with a quality final quarter display to run out 3-8 to 1-7 winners over Mullagh in the decider.
It was a success many outside the parish were expecting in later years with young players like Shauna Healy, Sarah Keehan, Aoife Callanan and Rebecca Hennelly already established performers in the maroon and white while County Final goal scorers Cliodhna Walsh and Denise Diviney (back training after a hand injury) are involved in this year’s minor panel but their manager wasn’t surprised their breakthrough came at this time.
“We’d five on the county intermediate (team) and one in the senior, Becky (Hennelly),” said Carr when speaking to the Tribune this week.  “We’d lots of minor and under 16 titles behind us.  We weren’t looking for a favourites tag but we knew we’d be there or thereabouts.”
Ardrahan’s wins were built on smart tactical play and an intense work rate that rattled their opponents at local level and they’ll be looking for similar when they face Mullinavat.
Roisin Gardiner has been reliable between the sticks, including keeping out a series of Brenda Hanney strikes during the semi-final.  Healy, Keehan and Aoife Lynskey form the backbone of the defence along with Aisling Brennan and Sheila Forde.  One enforced change for Carr will see right corner back Marguerite Howley miss the game but they have strong back-up in the likes of All-Ireland underage winners Noreen Murphy and Siobhan Gardiner.
“They’ll be no surprises but there will be a few switches,” added the Ardrahan manager.  “We’ve a strong bench!  We’re missing Marguerite Howley whose in the (United) States and she won’t be back until February.  But we’ll have one or two changes from the County Final.
These could happen in attack where Ardrahan have plenty of options.  Hennelly will move about the half-forward line with Rachael O’Toole and Andrea Mullins.  And young forwards Walsh and Diviney will battle Edel Holland and Keelin O’Shaughnessy for three slots upfront.  
Ardrahan’s opponents are the first Kilkenny team to clinch Leinster since 2006 but they feature numerous of the black and amber players who faced Galway in Croke Park in September.
Captained by Michelle Quilty, they also feature centre back Elaine Aylward, county minor Ciara Holden and the dangerous Leanne Fennelly at centre forward.  In that provincial final, they withstood a late fight back from Wexford outfit St. Ibars Shelmalier (featuring county stars Katriona Parrock and Kate Kelly) to secure a 3-12 to 3-10 win.
Ardrahan are aware of their attacking threat with Julie Anne Malone (2-2) and Rebecca Haberlin (1-3) significant contributors while midfielders Amy Butler and Aine Kinsella will be provide a challenging afternoon for Ardrahan duo Callanan and Megan Carr.
The weather could be the telling factor and with two sides anxious to start well, the coin toss will be significant.  Any team coming from Kilkenny must be respected and Mullinavat have won three of the last four Noreside county titles.
Along with the aforementioned midfield duel, the meeting of Fennelly and Lynskey will be interesting as will Keehan vs Holden and possibly Hennelly vs Aylward.  But like the All-Ireland final in September, the battle between the Ardrahan full backs and Mullinavat full forwards could be most important.  Quilty, Malone and Haberlin form an intimidating trio well capable of doing damage.  Healy won’t be fazed by the challenge and if her corner backs are equally efficient, Ardrahan can eliminate Mullinavat’s main weapon.
The south Galway side proved their credentials in the county championship and if Ardrahan can come out on top in those battles, they have a very strong attack that will trouble Mullinavat.  The experience of the intermediate campaign from 2012 should stand to them and give them the edge to make a return trip to Croke Park next month.
All-Ireland Intermediate Club Camogie Semi-Final Preview 
A few years ago, the rivalry between these clubs captivated the country and after one win each, they’ll settle it this Sunday (Moneygall 1pm) when Portumna take on Ballyhale Shamrocks in the All-Ireland intermediate club camogie semi-final.
Of course, that was 2009 and 2010, the game was hurling and everyone was talking about Henry (Shefflin) vs Joe (Canning), but the ladies will look to finish what the lads started.
Neither the respective camogie sides carry the same pedigree but this tie will be equally intriguing and with a possible Croke Park appearance for the finalists.
Portumna finally took the County intermediate title at the fourth attempt when they defeated Carnmore 0-9 to 0-5.  Previous losses to Sarsfields, Ardrahan and Castlegar tested their character but they enjoyed their success before focusing on this tie.
“When you win it, you want to try and move on,” said manager Johnny Keane.  “They gave it a good run until Christmas.  We finally got the monkey off our backs. We did a couple of nights before Christmas.  Then from the 1st of January, we started doing three nights, now four.”
Niamh McClearn in goal has rarely being breached while their defence is a hard working unit led by captain Lorraine Conroy on the wing, Trish Burke and Maeve Moran in the central positions, plus Emma Ruttledge, Lindsey McClearn and Philippa Coleman.
Coleman’s (knee) involvement in the All-Ireland semi-final is doubtful while midfielder Megan Moran picked up a knock but is expected to start.  
Brenda McClearn will be the favourite to slot in should Coleman miss out but the inclusion of county intermediate Moran will be crucial as herself and Katie O’Brien have formed a solid partnership all year.  In attack, Tara Harte, Hazel Treacy, Amy Moran, Caoimhe Horan, Triona Byrne and Nicola Muldoon will fight for starting berths but they will depend on the talented Tara Ruttledge if they are to take victory.
Ruttledge’s hat-trick in the County semi-final against Ahascragh/Caltra showed why she is still one of the best and if the supply into her is good, then Portumna are in with a strong shout.
Also inexperienced, Ballyhale Shamrocks do bring strong names, notably county senior Jacqui Frisby and she’ll be responsible for keeping the ball from Ruttledge.  Six Fennellys line out including Mags, sister of current hurler Michael, and Keeva Fennelly who scored 1-2 in the Leinster Final win over Camross from Laois.  They will also look to the free taking of Kellyanne Cotteral.
Portumna’s defenders must work hard as Ballyhale Shamrocks have a variety of scorers.  If they succeed, Moran and O’Brien are capable of controlling the middle and then it’ll be down to Portumna’s star forward and Ballyhale Shamrock’s star defender to decide this tie.
Portumna have their work cut out but after the Henry vs Joe battles, if it does come down to Jacqui (Frisby) vs Tara (Ruttledge), don’t bet against the Galway goal getter!
*Copy courtesy of the Connacht Tribune

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