MANAGER James Daly is confident that Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) can launch a successful defence of their O’Connor Cup title on home soil this weekend.
Queen’s, who are also reigning League champions and unbeaten this year, will take on three-time winners Dublin City University in the first of Friday afternoon’s semi-finals (1.30pm).
That clash is followed by the meeting of University of Limerick, who last won the title in 2007 and University College Cork, winners two years ago (3.30pm).
An enthralling weekend lies in store with a number of players who were members of the All Star tour to Hong Kong on show.
Queen’s have lost four players who starred on last year’s winning team – including full-back Naomi McAnulla – but they have recruited Armagh star Caroline O’Hanlon and Neamh Woods from Tyrone to bolster an already formidable outfit.
Sinead McCleary (Armagh), Down’s Megan Doherty, player of the match in last year’s final Ruth Kearney from Westmeath, and Tyrone duo Louise Kelly and Aine Canavan (daughter of Tyrone legend Peter) are other key players to look out for on the Queen’s team.
DCU provide the opposition this afternoon and the Dublin outfit have contested four of the previous five finals, including three-in-a-row successes from 2009-11.
Manager Mark Fitzpatrick can call upon Mayo stars Leona Ryder, Amy Bell and Clodagh McManamon, with Dublin trio Leah Caffrey, Siobhan Woods and Lucy Collins also on board.
Cavan’s Sinead Greene and Monaghan’s Laura McEnaney, daughter of former Monaghan and Meath senior football manager Seamus, are other prominent players in the DCU set-up.
The second semi-final is an all-Munster affair between UCC, managed by Shane Ronayne, and a DJ Collins-led UL.
With ten of last year’s squad now unavailable, UL go into battle with a predominantly young side but there is plenty of experience in the form of Aine Tighe (Leitrim) and captain Sarah Tierney, who is also Mayo’s vice-captain.
And with a powerful midfielder partnership of Jennifer Grant (Tipperary) and Kerry’s Lorraine Scanlon, UL cannot be discounted in a wide-open race for glory.
Ronayne has insisted that UCC “are really up against it” as three of his big players have just returned from Hong Kong.
Cork’s Doireann O’Sullivan, Kerry’s star forward Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh and Kingdom defender Cáit Lynch have been clocking up the air miles and will be picked up by the UCC team bus en route to Belfast.
Ronayne added: “We have eight players who are on the extended Cork senior panel, Louise, Cáit and Megan O’Connell from Kerry, Alison Taylor from the Laois seniors, Kelly Hackett from the Tipperary intermediates and Aisling Hahessy of Waterford.
“From last year’s team that started the O’Connor Cup semi-final (against Queen’s), we still have nine players available to us. Our captain is Aine Hayes from Rosscarbery.”
UL may start as favourites for this semi-final as they beat UCC in the O’Connor Cup already this season, as well as the Jim Kennedy cup final.
And UL took Queen’s to extra-time in the League decider before losing out narrowly.
However, Queen’s remain the team to beat but manager Daly, who also doubles up as Armagh boss, admits that a different challenge now awaits his side as the hunters have become the hunted.
He said: “Nobody gave us a chance last year – nobody was expecting Queen’s to do anything. We knew ourselves that we had the ability and the team capable of doing it.
“There was a bit of aura about Cork (UCC) and we’re nearly in the same situation ourselves this year because we haven’t lost this year. We are the team to beat.”
“But we need to eliminate the idea that we’ll win the O’Connor cup because we’re favourites. If we think that, we’re in for a fall.
“We got the hard end of the draw against DCU but UL gave us the best game we got all year. We played them in the League final and beat them after extra-time by a point.
“We know what we’re capable of doing ourselves – we’ll go out and play our own game. If we play to our ability, we’re capable of winning the O’Connor Cup.”
Friday 21st March
11.30am, Pitch 13
Lynch Cup Semi Final – DKIT Vs St Pat’s Drumcondra
11.30am, Pitch 15
Lynch Cup Semi Final – Cork IT Vs RGU Aberdeen
1.30pm, Academy Pitch
Giles Cup Semi Final – MIC Limerick Vs IT Carlow
1.30pm, Pitch 15
Giles Cup Semi Final – Athlone IT Vs NUIM
1.30pm, Academy Pitch
O’Connor Cup Semi Final – Queen’s Vs DCU
3.30pm, Pitch 13
O’Connor Cup Semi Final – UL Vs UCC
Saturday 22nd March
12.30pm, Academy Pitch
2014 Lynch Cup Final – St Pat’s Vs CIT
2.30pm, Arena Pitch
2014 Giles Cup Final – MICL Vs NUIM
4.30PM, Arena Pitch
2014 O’Connor Cup Final – Queen’s Vs UL