McGoldrick keeps pushing upwards.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

McGoldrick keeps pushing upwards. thumbnailArmagh's Leah McGoldrick (right) in action for Ulster against Leinster in May's interprovincial camogie final at Kinnegad.

IRISH women's rugby faces significant challenges on the back of a proverbially bruising 2017 and that underwhelming World Cup campaign, but a literally painful finish to her own rugby year was well worth it for local prospect Leah McGoldrick as she keeps progressing in the sport.

Young Armagh camog McGoldrick was justifably full of Christmas cheer after fighting her way into the Ulster starting team for December's concluding interpro and emerging with credit from her direct clash on the wing with Irish rugby great Alison Miller.

Ulster lost 29-7 at home to Connacht and Leah herself was forced off with an injured shoulder towards the end of a game in which she was starved of ball out wide but there was still satisfaction for the tough teenager from Madden.

Getting the nod for the final fixture of the campaign made every drop of effort Leah has invested throughout the autumn feel well worthwhile and hurting her shoulder in getting back to make an important tackle couldn't take the gloss off the experience.

"I was taken off following treatment on the pitch but thankfully there's no serious damage done - the shoulder is just badly bruised around my AC joint - and Christmas means a bit of a break from fixtures so I was fortunate enough," explains Leah with typical positivity. She will be back in All Ireland League action with her Belfast club Cooke this month and the silver lining of Ireland's three home Six Nations matches having Sunday slots is that the domestic fixtures those weekends will be on the Saturday.

So instead of facing direct clashes of fixtures, this schedule will leave Leah free for National League camogie matches with Armagh and the dual star remains enthusiastically committed to the Orchard county's cause. Her well-deserved selection for the Connacht match means the multi-talented McGoldrick has represented her province at adult level in two sports in 2017 having also lined out as the Ulster camogie team's starting corner back earlier in the year.

In rugby, the 19-year-old found herself up against the toughest possible opponent in Ireland legend Miller and did a great job of containing Connacht's main threat at Belfast's Deramore Park. From the outset, Ulster lived dangerously in defending narrowly with captain Larissa Muldoon, the Dublin- based Ireland scrumhalf from Donegal who lined out at full back here, sometimes deployed outside McGoldrick.

Miller scored two tries but the second was well away from her own wing on an afternoon she got no change out of the tenacious McGoldrick, who defended ferociously and also showed a good rugby brain in negating a couple of ominous overlaps.

Leah had averted danger on three occasions in the opening 10 minutes and displayed great conviction in nailing Miller very effectively but, towards the end of the first quarter, she had little choice but to take the inside player as Connacht attacked with numbers on the left. It was a big hit but the offload freed Miller who went on a carving run to the line from near halfway for the game's opening try and Connacht crossed twice more late in the half with Ulster's Dublin-based international outhalf Nikki Caughey in the sinbin.

From the last play of the half, McGoldrick might have had a run for the corner but the attack broke down just before the ball reached her and the youngster showed good presence of mind in ensuring Miller couldn't scoop up posession and race clear for another try. It was still 17-0 when, with McGoldrick down injured, play continued until Connacht scored their fourth try on 70 minutes and, with her now off the field, they crossed again in injury-time from an overlap on the left before Brittany Hogan had the last word for Ulster.

That well-taken try right at the death by McGoldrick's fellow young gun was scant consolation for an Ulster team long since condemned to a fifth consecutive series whitewash.

The other three provinces each had two wins, with Munster pipping Leinster to the title on points difference, while Ulster failed to pick up even a losing bonus point never mind ending a grim run of five years without winning a single game. Although the scoreline flattered Connacht, Ulster were guilty of far too many unforced errors, with alarmingly abysmal basics compounding poor option-taking, damaging indecision, concentration lapses and not enough tactical awareness at times.

Leaving ex-international Eliza Downey, the fomer Down ladies gaelic captain, on the bench deprived Ulster of an experienced player, natural leader and excellent communicator who could have brought better organisation to the backline. The fact there isn't a single northern-based Ulster player who appeared in this interpro series included in Ireland's 38-player Six Nations squad announced just before Christmas reflects current realities in terms of women's rugby's balance of power in this country.

Ulster women's rugby has trailed badly behind in recent years and that can't change overnight. However the glass is rightly half full for the promising McGoldrick at a personal level after fronting up with real relish against the formidable Miller, the greatest women's winger this country has ever produced, who is renowned for her pace, power and lethal finishing.

When Ireland beat England en route to their historic Grand Slam success of 2013, Miller ran in a hat-trick of tries and she also touched down three times against Scotland two years later on the day the girls in green clinched their only other Six Nations title to date.

It was the wing wonder who powered home the crucial try as Ireland famously upset seemingly invincible New Zealand at the 2014 World Cup and her scintillating score against Australia at Ravenhill at this year's tournament is another notable addition to the highlights reel.

Although Ulster were well beaten by the western women, McGoldrick can take satisfaction from the fact Miller never got through her or round her in a one-on-one situation and she is philosophical about her own lack of attacking chances on a dull December day.

"It would have been nice to get some ball in hand and a couple of times it looked like I might get a chance to go on the outside but the last pass didn't come. But that's how it is sometimes on the wing and defending is an important part of the game which I pride myself on.

"I still enjoyed the experience and, although we had hoped for a better result, losing like this will just make me more determined to come back next year and fight for Ulster success," says McGoldrick who also put in notable tackles on another Ireland World Cup player, Mairead Coyne, and the Connacht captain.

Remarkably McGoldrick's first two starts for Ulster at adult level, 52 weeks apart, have been directly opposite Miller, for she made her full debut in the same position in the corresponding game against Connacht in Galway last December. Back then, Leah had been called up to the senior squad on the back of starring in Ulster's surprise triumph in the inaugural Under 18 interprovincial competition and got picked on the right wing for the Connacht game after a couple of cameo appearances off the bench.

Taking on Miller would daunt plenty of more experienced players but McGoldrick, who was just a schoolgirl first time round, was fully up for it this time too and no doubt the Ulster management realised they had nobody better suited to this task. They would have known McGoldrick not only had the heart for the job but also, in spite of her tender age, a pragmatic mentality and real resilience which would leave her less likely than most to be damaged badly if Miller made it the sort of traumatic afternoon she can inflict on opponents at all levels.

An unflappably phlegmatic person who embraces challenges with hunger and ambition backed by dogged determination and unquestionable stomach for the fight, McGoldrick knows that, on the field, she can't let respect for an opposing player's pedigree translate into deferential fear.

"Alison Miller's reputation rightly goes before her but, after failing to make the matchday squad for the first two interpros and been the spare back on each occasion, I was delighted to get my chance here and to have the honour of representing my province," reflects Leah. "I was excited by the prospect of pulling on the white jersey again after a long wait and determined to make the most of the experience, particularly with this being Ulster's last official fixture of the season.

"Rather than letting my head drop when not picked for the Leinster or Munster matches, I knew I had to keep patient and doing the right things and believe my chance would come. Although I totally understand that there are no guarantees in sport, it would have been tough to have trained all autumn and not set foot on the field but thankfully the hard work paid off for me in the end with selection against Connacht.

"This might sound strange but I honestly saw the opportunity of facing Alison Miller again as an absolute bonus rather than some sort of unlucky coincidence because you just want to go up against the best and she has repeatedly proved herself world-class through the years.

"She's so strong and fast and an elusive runner who is also very experienced, the complete package really and a handful for any opponent even at international level. "I've the greatest respect for her as a player and what those stalwarts of the Irish side have done for women's rugby in this country.

They are heroes and a real inspiration to young girls like myself so it's such an exciting challenge to get playing against someone like that.

"You read about how Ireland really struggled at international level in the old days but that group really raised the bar under their head coach Philip Doyle. I had the privilege of working with him in my first Ulster season as well as playing against Miller so that can only be beneficial.

"With Armagh having no adult ladies side I needed a new club this season and although there were maybe more comfortable options I wanted to come to Cooke because they're the only Ulster side in the All Ireland League. There are only eight teams so it's a very elite environment.

"You have to fight for your place and nothing comes easily in matches but you'll learn something more every week and get a real feel for what you need to work on. We're in the top half of the AIL table and that's encouraging for Ulster rugby.

"Ulster have been a bit behind the other provinces in recent years and obviously our results over the past few weeks weren't what we wanted. The interpros were tough for Ulster and we've still a bit to go but I think the talent and determination needed to close the gap and compete more evenly in the years ahead is there.

"Ireland used to be beaten all the time in the Six Nations but turned that around and likewise we must not accept that Ulster should be bottom of the provincial pile every year. Last season's Under 18 interpros showed we can match the other teams if we have the belief and application."

Even in local camogie, McGoldrick has a reputation for getting stuck in rather than lying down as she showed in Madden's Armagh Senior Championship semi-final against Keady this autumn when she launched a defiant fightback by storming forward for two goals from centre half back. Having captained Armagh Minors to the All Ireland C title in 2016 she partnered the legendary Bernie Murray in midfield for the senior side later that year as the Orchard camogs returned to Croke Park for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century.

That has been mirrored in rugby by her heroics for Ulster Under 18s leading to a swift senior side call-up and likewise the former St Pat's Keady pupil was selected to play camogie for Ulster Schools and the province's adult team the same spring.

A real all-rounder who has also shown impressive prowess in gaelic football and road bowls, McGoldrick was deservedly shortlisted last autumn for the Armagh-Banbridge-Craigavon Young Sportswoman of the Year award. A strong, independent-minded young woman who conducts herself with impressive maturity and dutifully fronts up in each circumstance, McGoldrick is securely comfortable in her own skin, knows what she wants, will fight hard for opportunity and always learns from every experience.

Those qualities should help her keep pushing ahead throughout 2018.


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