Connacht put themselves in pole position to win their first ever girls U-18 interprovincial title after a fascinating opening day at Garryduff.
A comprehensive 3-0 rout of Ulster was followed up by a slightly sloppier 3-2 defeat of South East, to ensure the westerners were the only side to take maximum points from their opening encounters.
A win over Leinster on Sunday morning will likely see them crowned champions, unless Ulster can win both their remaining clashes and fire a slew of goals in the process.
Munster hopes for the title seem to be gone, having taken just a point from two games, though David Egner was pleased with his side's response to their loss to Ulster with a pulsating 2-2 draw against Leinster.
Jenny Kyle got two for the northerners in that game, while Anna Mae Morton and Natalie Barr were also on the scoresheet in a poor encounter.
Olivia Roycroft hit a consolation for an out-of-sorts Munster, but the hosts were far more clued in for their afternoon clash with Leinster, which predictably attracted the biggest crowd of the day.
Mount Mercy’s Yvonne O’Byrne set the tone, putting in some robust challenges in the opening exchanges, before Munster got off to the best possible start on six minutes, when captain Jennifer Lytle scored the kind of goal a player can usually only dream about.
The Villiers starlet’s deft first touch took her past last defender Orla Fox near halfway, but the chance appeared to have evaporated as Lytle looked to have over-ran the ball.
But as the ball looked headed for the endline, Lytle dived at it and fired a stunning reverse into the far top corner from an acute angle - an unbelievable finish that will hardly be bettered anywhere else this season.
Leinster sorely missed the guile of Chloe Watkins in midfield - the Hermes prodigy was ruled out through illness - but they were stung into action and forced five corners in succession, starting in the 13th minute.
Rosie Shanahan did superbly to get a block on Leinster skipper Fox’s raised shot on one occasion, but the goal finally came when Fox worked the ball to Sinead McGirr at the far post, who finished with the aid of a deflection off Munster netminder Aoife Lehane.
While chances were at a premium for Munster thereafter, Naomi Carroll’s pace ensured the Leinster centre-backs endured an uncomfortable afternoon, and Lett had to be off her line fast to force the Catholic Institute to fire wide after a hopeful long ball had come all the way thorough to her in the 27th minute.
But it was Leinster who came out stronger after the break, and they took a deserved lead on 45 minutes when Fox slammed the ball home from the top of the circle off a straightforward corner.
Lett had to be alert to save Lytle’s sweep with six minutes to go, but Leinster looked like they would hold out until a bizarre sequence of events in the final 90 seconds that may come to define their tournament.
There seemed to be little harm when Lauragh O’Neill fired a ball across the Leinster circle in the 59th minute, but the ball took a deflection off a defender’s stick, wrong-footing keeper Lett, who did well to prevent an own goal.
But Carroll was on hand to tap in for an equaliser and send Garryduff into raptures, but the drama wasn’t finished there.
Gillian Pinder, easily Leinster’s best offensive weapon, set off on a run with 20 seconds to the hooter that bamboozled four Munster defenders and gave her a chance to steal victory at the death. Her shot beat Lehane, but careered off the post to leave Leinster wondering what might have been.
Watkins is reportedly due to return for them tomorrow, and while they laboured to a 2-0 win over South East, with Marie Goulding getting both goals, they are still in the shake-up. Tomorrow morning’s pivotal clash with Connacht will give things a clearer picture going into the final round of games.
Leinster go into that clash on four points, while Connacht have six. While many of the Cork crowd seemed surprised at the westerners’ rise to prominence, it should come as no shock given they boast ten underage internationals and annexed their first interpro crown at U16 level last term.
It’s not often an Ulster U18 side gets so comprehensibly beaten in any competition, but Connacht’s 3-0 defeat of them in their opening encounter oozed class.
The centre-back partnership of Freddie Timmins and Tara Melvin were equally impressive in their ability to break up play and distribute the ball intelligently, but it was Deirdre Hatton who struck early on to put them in front.
With Brenda Flannery controlling midfield and Jessica McMickan and Katie Codyre making nuisances of themselves up front, Connacht eventually made the game safe with two goals in as many minutes after half-time.
First, Orla Callanan’s run up the right and some quickfire passing from Flannery and Timmins set up Lynsey Trainor, who wrong-footed Sammy Jo Greer and found the bottom corner from six yards on 38 minutes.
They made sure of the result two minutes later, Hatton latching on to a through ball and rounding Greer before squaring for Codyre to finish. Despite forcing a slew of short corners late on, Ulster couldn’t find a way through.
Connacht did make heavy work of their next outing against the South East, however; goals from Codyre and Brenda Flannery had them two up and cruising inside eight minutes, with Hatton adding a third later on, but Jean Devoy and Zoe Codd ensured a nervy finale as it finished 3-2.