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Rising star O'Neill tipped to show his quality and help Armagh hit heights

 

Huge talent: Armagh’s Rian O’Neill scores one of his two goals against Monaghan
Huge talent: Armagh’s Rian O’Neill scores one of his two goals against Monaghan
Rian O’Neill celebrates after the game with Jarlath Og Burns and Aidan Nugent
Declan Bogue

Declan Bogue

Exactly two years ago today, Rian O'Neill of Crossmaglen, south Armagh, flew across the globe to one of the oldest sporting institutions in the world - the North Melbourne Australian Rules club - to see how he might shape up as a prospective player.

O'Neill had already been identified by Aussie Rules scouts and was brought to former Collingwood Magpies and Down All-Star Marty Clarke for some coaching sessions and an education process after parents and players have decided to try out the oval ball.

Clarke liked much about O'Neill and felt he was a genuine stand-out candidate.

"I liked him in terms of his footballing ability, his game-sense, his size, his aggression," recalled Clarke.

"His kicking of the Australian Rules ball, off either foot, was as good as I have seen from anyone coming through the programme, or even those who have played AFL.

"It was remarkable how he picked up the kicking in particular and he could obviously mark the ball as well."

But something just didn't compute for North Melbourne.

They were concerned about what they call "explosive ability" - the tools to collect a bobbling ball and make your way out of congestion and into green spaces.

"I don't have the figures, but I think when it came to being in the gym in a pair of trainers, Rian probably doesn't blow away recruiters and these guys with his raw figures, but I have never seen Rian on the field being exposed for speed or explosiveness," said Clarke.

"I was similar myself, I never really tested that well in the gym in front of people. I just wanted to go out and play football and I think that's what got me a contract in Australia. Clubs have missed out because they focus too much on what testing has shown at times."

You can never say never, but rather than Clarke saying that O'Neill will not get to play AFL now, he looks forward to watching him deliver more of the incredible summer he is having with Armagh, capped by two goals against Monaghan last weekend and his best John Cena celebrations.

Much like Clarke, he drifts out in search of the ball if things are not happening for him.

Stevie McDonnell, who as the 2003 Player of the Year and one half of Armagh's most lethal forward combination has watched O'Neill's career with glee and believes there might be something in Australia for him after all, said: "I don't think it has come and gone.

"He is still only 20, 21. When you look at Rian O'Neill in comparison to a lot of young players, he has an advantage because he is really well physically developed in terms of his size and physique already and ready-made for that type of game.

"He already has that in his locker. Ultimately, you love to see somebody give it a go as a professional, and why wouldn't you take that opportunity?"

There are certain similarities in O'Neill and McDonnell. When Armagh won their first Ulster in 17 years back in 1999, McDonnell spent the year looking on from the bench, learning how to become a county footballer.

When he was unleashed in 2000, teams were pre-occupied by Oisín McConville and Diarmuid Marsden before they noticed the skinny kid from Killeavy who could kick points from tight angles and loved feasting on goals.

O'Neill has a little of that, landing into an Armagh team where opposition sides have focused their analysis on Jamie Clarke.

"A lot of people would have liked to have seen something of him last year, but I think management have done a good job in terms of holding him back and getting him right and ready for this campaign," said McDonnell.

"It's something I have noticed about Rian. He likes to move around the forward line a bit to get his hands on the ball. He doesn't shirk responsibility for a young lad and that tells me he enjoys playing in that set-up."

And he has that hunger for goals. Over a weekend where we saw numerous examples of goal chances being abdicated for the hand-passed point, O'Neill stood out for his confidence to leather a ball to the rigging.

"You can never have enough desire for goals if you are an Armagh supporter looking at players like that. It is brilliant to see," said McDonnell with delight.

"If by getting scores you have an eye for goal then even better because goals win games. And they were critical in Armagh's victory over Monaghan at the weekend. He relishes the opportunity of being in front of goal and if it is a half chance, he will pull the trigger."

It's that kind of threat that has McDonnell believing in his county as they head down to Castlebar for this evening's Round Three qualifier against a vulnerable and injury-hit Mayo.

"I am convinced Armagh will beat them. It's not just me being the Armagh supporter and tipping them. It's me looking at the forward lines and I believe Armagh's forward line is better than theirs," he added.

The game of the season awaits.

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