Leinster’s Under-21 women claimed the interprovincial title with an unbeaten run over the last two weekends to land the trophy at the Merrion Fleet Arena in Rathdown.
The tournament had originally been conceived in the 2015-16 season calendar as a split weekend with one series in November and another in June.A number of provinces had an issue with June for a variety of reasons, leading to a change in format with three Sundays over September, October and November suggested to ensure the national coaches could see players in a competitive situation with and against their peers. This is an important factor with over 50% of the players selected playing outside the Irish Hockey League.
This was subsequently revised to two weekends, allowing national coaches a chance to identify players to bring into regional training panels. Given the playing schedules, provinces were asked to include up to 25 players in their squads and to name up to 18 for each match.
Ulster pulled out of the competition due to issues with the format of the competition, a pity as they were the one province to continue an Under-21 programme over the past couple of seasons.
On the opening weekend, the blues shaded a 1-0 win over Connacht with Sarah Evans grabbing the only goal. The western side came flying out of the gate with Elaine Carey seeing a top backhand effort saved by Carolyn Crampton in the first three minutes.
Leinster initially looked like a team that had never played together and had to weather the initial Connacht blitz in the opening phases.
In the second and third quarter, though, Leinster settled more and started to find their rhythm with Leinster debutants Anna Richardson, Laura Hanlon and Vanessa Wynn, all looking more than able for the pace of the game.
A couple of corners were won but didn’t lead to anything while, at the other end, there was a scare when Crampton had to come right to the top of her D to deal with a break.
In the final quarter, Leinster’s quality shone through with Sally Campbell and Sorcha Clarke looking likely to create something. And it was through the latter that the goal came.
Clarke picked the ball up high up the pitch and putting an awkward backstick ball across the face of goal where Evans pounced on the chance to steer the cross home. There was still a late flurry from a well organised and hardworking Connaught, for whom Ellie Noone stood out, to endure but Leinster saw out the game one nil.
The Irish Under-18s won the other game of day one 3-0 against Munster with Ellen Curran, Michelle Barry and Michelle Carey on the mark.
It gave Leinster the edge going into day two. They met the Irish Under-18s in an unusual fixture with both teams having plenty of talent but neither having played together much. Keith Crawford, assistant coach for both sides, was a particularly interested neutral.
Leinster went 1-0 up within the first two minutes when a high, aggressive initial press caused a defensive mix up in the Ireland D which Evans punished clinically, picking up where she left off the previous Sunday. The first quarter was all Leinster with a Millie O’Donnell corner being tipped wide and a Sara Quill double-effort being excellently saved.After that, it became a more even affair with both team showcasing plenty of attacking intent. There was some high quality battles in midfield where Emma Duncan and Michelle Carey were matching up as well as a sibling rivalry between the McDermott sisters Hannah and Freya on opposing sides for the first time.
The fourth quarter and balance went to Ireland who, having equalised after winning the ball high up the pitch, seized the initiative and pushed Leinster deeper and deeper, winning a series of corners in search of the win.
Alannah Carragher saved a series of drags though while captain Jess McGirr and Rachel Gray were resolute in defence.
In the end a 1-1 draw was a fair result. If either team’s keepers weren’t in such fine form or either team’s corner routines were just a touch sharper, the game could have as easily finished 4-4 as 1-1.
Leinster duly closed out the tournament with an impressive final win over Munster in the final match of the competition in lovely conditions under the floodlights.
Munster started strongly looking to press high and compete for everything in midfield where they were a physical presence. It took Leinster the best part of the opening quarter to get to grips with it but they started to move the ball well and stayed calm.
Anything that did get through was snuffed out by the alert Crampton. Vice captain Rachel O’Brien, one of only two players to have played for Leinster U-21s before – Millie O’Donnell the other – was linking up well with Sara Twomey (Irish U-21 in 2013) and Emma Duncan in a classy midfield.
The first goal was an individual effort from Sorcha Clarke who intercepted a ball around the Munster backline before rounding the keeper and finishing coolly. Munster continued to fight hard but Leinster were in clinical form and beginning to click having had a few games now to gel.
The second goal game just before half time when Jess McGirr’s powerful run from centre back found club mate Lauren O’Leary on the baseline who pulled the ball back to Twomey arriving in the D from midfield to finish first time.
After half time, Munster began to fade and the ceaseless running of Lauren Thomas was rewarded when the excellent Rachel Gray found her in the D and the former South East player turned her defender beautifully before dispatching a backstick into the top right corner of the net emphatically.
The athletic forward was again involved only minutes later when following an initially good save from the Munster keeper she was bundled over and a stroke awarded. O’Donnell duly stepped up and dispatched it with minimal fuss.
In the final quarter, a green and a yellow card reduced Munster’s numbers briefly to nine and Leinster didn’t let up. A couple of deft jinks of the ball gave the impressive McGirr all the space she needed to shoot from the top of the circle with only a last second touch saving the Munster goal.
The game was finally killed off when Leinster debutant Cliona McCullough, who has also represented Dublin in camogie, won the ball herself and drove to the baseline before setting up O’Leary for a deserved goal.
The cherry on top of an excellent performance came in the final goal where Sarah Patton drove from left back skipped through a couple of challenges to cut inside and find Sarah O’Loughlin at the top of the D where the St Gerrard’s student made no mistake in rifling a shot just underneath the crossbar.
It was a really impressive all round performance from a Leinster side that didn’t have any friendlies leading up to the tournament but did everything that was asked of them.
Leinster panel: Anna Richardson (Avoca), Alannah Carragher (Corinthian), Sarah Patton (Hermes), Sally Campbell (Hermes/St Andrew’s), Jessica McGirr (Loreto), Lauren O’Leary (Loreto), Sarah Evans (Loreto), Sarah O’Loughlin (Loreto/St Gerard’s), Anna Roopnarinesingh (Old Alex), Hannah McDermott (Old Alex), Vanessa Winn (Old Alex), Laura Hanlon (Pembroke), Ailish Long (Trinity), Carolyn Crampton (Trinity), Cliona McCullough (Trinity), Lauren Thomas (Trinity), Rachel O’Brien (Trinity), Sara Quill (Trinity), Clodagh Cassin (UCD), Emma Duncan (UCD), Millie O’Donnell (UCD), Rachel Gray (UCD), Sara Twomey (UCD), Sorcha Clarke (UCD)
Coach: Chris Tyrell
Assistant coach: Keith Crawford
Team Manager: Michelle Heming