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Ryan Byrne/INPHO Meath celebrate after their win over Cork.
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'Lessons to be learned' from Meath's rapid progress and development, says O'Hanlon
‘When you put in the work at underage level and you put the structures in place, anybody can be competitive.’

“FOR BOTH MEN and women, there’s lessons to be learned,” says Armagh star Caroline O’Hanlon when discussing Meath’s rapid rise to a first TG4 All-Ireland senior final.

In their first year back in the top-flight, the Royals stunned Cork after extra-time in Sunday’s semi-final at Croke Park, booking an historic decider date against four-in-a-row champions Dublin.

Before their monumental victory over the 11-time champions, Eamonn Murray’s 2020 intermediate winners saw off O’Hanlon’s Armagh in the quarter-final.

Now, we could see new champions for the first time since 2004, which the dual star agrees would be great for the game.

A quick look back through the years to map Meath’s progress: Surely one of the great turnarounds of Irish sport, Cork had condemned Meath to a 40-point demolition in the 2015 All-Ireland qualifiers.

After requesting relegation to intermediate level the following season, a massive rebuilding job began. They reached the semi-final in 2017 and finals in 2018 and 2019 before making it third time’s a charm last December. They have also risen the league ranks from Division 3 to Division 1, ending a seven-year wait for a top-table return in June, while the county has enjoyed plenty of underage success.

lidl-girls-play-too-2-media-day Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE Armagh star and Northern Ireland netball international, Caroline O'Hanlon, launching Girls Play Too 2: Inspiring Stories Of Irish Sportswomen’. Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

O’Hanlon believes their fairytale run “gives a lot of hope to other counties,” and points to the incredible work that’s gone in since their re-build at intermediate level, which should serve as a template to replicate going forward.

“Meath, obviously, last year weren’t even in the senior championship, so that gives a lot of hope to other counties in the country,” she began.

“And it just shows you the work that’s gone in. They’re not a flash in the pan, they had done a lot of work behind the scenes, their county board and their coaching at club level and underage level has contributed to this.

“They haven’t come out of nowhere. They’ve been on a journey for four or five years. I think other countries should be looking at them and taking lessons from them.

“Dublin, in particular, whenever they win, people think, ‘Ah, it’s because they have so much money, it’s because they have such a big population’ – that they’re untouchable because of those factors. But actually, when you put in the work at underage level and you put the structures in place, anybody can be competitive.

“I think for both men and women, those lessons have to be learned. And I think that teams like that – [2021 semi-finalists] Mayo and Meath – are breaking that barrier a bit.”

Some of those sentiments echoed those of Dublin boss Mick Bohan in an interview with Off The Ball yesterday. “With good organisation, good coaching and good structures, look at what can take place,” he said:

Having missed the Meath defeat through injury herself, O’Hanlon says that the result came as no surprise.

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To those on the outside looking in, their back-to-back wins over Armagh and Cork could be seen as shocks or upsets, but that’s far from the case.

“To be honest, people were underestimating Meath more than we were,” O’Hanlon added. “They beat us in the league last year, and they got promoted to Division 1 and were playing well.

“We were under no illusion that it was going to be a very tough game. They’ve been highly competitive, and they’re certainly a team on the up.

“Their performance wasn’t a shock, probably our performance was a bit of a shock in so much as we made too many errors. Their work rate on the day, their organisation and their discipline was better than ours on the day. That’s disappointing.

“I wouldn’t say I’m shocked at their performance because I think anybody that’s seen Meath over the last couple of years, they’ve been so consistent in doing the simple things, working hard and they have a great balance in their team. That wasn’t a shock for us. It was our personal performance and our error rate that was probably disappointing.”

With “nothing to lose,” she backs them to cause heavy favourites Dublin problems in the final, while her own Armagh side face Donegal in Saturday’s Ulster decider.

That will bring the curtain down on her 21st year of inter-county duty.

‘Girls Play Too 2: More Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen’ is exclusively available in Lidl Northern Ireland stores nationwide for only £9.99 until the 5th of September – just in time to inspire children as they prepare to go back to school.

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