Hurling and camogie

Hurling review of 2017

16/04/2017: Antrim celebrate after beating Armagh during the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship final at Owenbeg on Sunday. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
By Seamus Maloney

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Heading into 2017, Antrim – Ulster’s perennial hurling standard-bearers were looking at another year in Division 2A and the Christy Ring Cup looking up in both League and Championship at the opposition they wanted to be mixing it with next year.

Heading into 2018, the Saffrons will play in Division 1B – beginning with a trip to All-Ireland champions Galway, no less – and their Championship campaign has them back in a round robin competition with the likes of Laois and Westmeath with the chance to earn a crack at one of the big guns.

So, why doesn’t it feel like 2017 went the way it should have done for Antrim? For the same reason the rest of Ulster hurling – and the county game most places below the top level – felt the past 12 months were a water-treading exercise.

The changes brought in by a Special Congress in September were designed to boost the top level of the game, to give hurling comparable time in the sun to the football’s upcoming ‘Super 8’. That’s nothing new. The GAA has always lived by a trickle-down philosophy when it comes to structural competitive change. Let’s sort it out for the big boys, then see what happens next.

So, after the top 10 were guaranteed more matches, a new second level Joe McDonagh Cup – Antrim and all ?– was created, while the tiers fell one spot for the existing competitions.

But all that’s for 2018. 2017 was actually one of Ulster’s more successful years recently – particularly at inter-county level where Antrim, Derry and Armagh all moved up in the world one way or another.

The Saffrons and the Oak Leafers had silverware to show for it, winning Division 2A of the NHL and the Nicky Rackard Cup respectively, while the Orchard men were placed in the now tier three Christy Ring Cup for 2018 along with Derry after reaching this year’s Rackard final.

That Croke Park match saw Derry ease to an impressive win, and Collie McGurk’s side were clearly a class apart at that level, averaging just shy of 5-20 across their four games, with a winning margin of nearly 17 points per match.

Division 2B of the League was overall a higher level of competition and a much tougher challenge, made all the more difficult by the absence of Slaughtneil players as they attacked the All-Ireland club landscape on two different fronts – something Derry will have to deal with again in 2018.

The influence of Gerald Bradley, Sean and Brian Cassidy and county footballers Brendan Rogers and Chrissy McKaigue in that Croke Park win over Armagh showed how much Derry miss when they don’t have everyone who could be playing at their disposal.

Both Division 2B and Christy Ring Cup Group Two will have a mini-Ulster Championship feel in 2018 with Armagh, Derry and Down playing in both.

While Armagh will be pleased they’re there for the Championship, their League position comes after relegation in 2017, when they played well at times – particularly in defeats to Antrim and Kildare – but paid the price for only managing a home draw with London (albeit they scored 1-1 in injury-time to get it). In between that relegation and their Nicky Rackard campaign, Armagh beat Down to reach just their third Ulster SHC final but found themselves on the wrong end of a 22-point beating from Antrim – their 16th consecutive title.

As for Down, they finished two points off a final place in Division 2B but had the misfortune of two away matches against the top two in the section – Meath and Wicklow. Marty Mallon’s side had more of the same to deal with in the Christy Ring Cup when their only defeats came in two trips up to Cushendall for matches with Antrim.

Further down the pecking order, Donegal emerged from a three-way Ulster struggle in Division 3A, beating Tyrone in the final having finished level with the Red Hands and Monaghan in the group stage. All three were in the Nicky Rackard Cup where Tyrone and Monaghan reached the semi-finals only to suffer heavy defeats to Armagh and Derry respectively. The trio will try again in the Nicky Rackard next year and it would be a surprise if one of them don’t win it.

While Liam Watson inspired Warwickshire to Lory Meagher Cup glory at Croke Park, the best news from an Ulster point of view was the return of Cavan to inter-county competition after six years. Fermanagh may not agree – they lost to the Breffni county.

Watson was one of the few Antrim men with a smile on his face that June Saturday at Croke Park.

The Saffrons, having beaten Carlow twice and drawn once in their previous three League and Championship meetings in 2017, were wiped out in the Christy Ring final. The Barrowsiders ran riot to record an 11-point defeat and condemn Antrim to another year licking their wounds a level below where they wanted to be. Until Congress stepped in.

The promotion Antrim earned for themselves in 2017 was genuinely impressive. After effectively securing their Division 2A final spot with a round of play to go they beat Carlow in Newry with a display of tough, focussed, controlled hurling in poor conditions on an awful pitch in Newry. It was by far Antrim’s bright spot, made all the brighter by subsequent events at Croke Park.

As noted, Slaughtneil will try to get to Croke Park in two codes, with the footballers clearly the more likely. The hurlers came up against a quality Cuala team last February and, having impressively retained their provincial crown, face an equally formidable Na Piarsaigh side this season.

This year Cloughmills suffered an extra-time quarter-final defeat to London side Robert Emmet’s at intermediate level while Keady were well beaten by Kilkenny side Mooncoin at junior level.

Donegal champions Setanta (junior) and Armagh’s Middletown (intermediate) will fly the Ulster flag in the new year with Middletown in particular, having almost won this competition in 2012, genuine title contenders.

Congress’s tinkering wasn’t confined to the senior Championship. “Any Ulster Team(s), as agreed by Ulster and Leinster Councils” can now play in the Leinster U21 and minor championships. What happens to the Ulster championships at these grades remains an open question.

Antrim didn’t make it to the provincial U21 decider this year, with Derry beating Down for their first title since 2008. Their 52-point All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kilkenny further displayed the need for a change in structure, as did another minor quarter-final defeat for Antrim, this time to Dublin.

The Antrim team of the late ‘80s that competed at the top table was backboned by players who played minor championship hurling in Leinster and reached the 1979 provincial final. A change can’t hurt.

Antrim’s U17s showed what they could do against good southern opposition when they impressively beat North Cork in the Division Two final of the Celtic Challenge competition, while four other Ulster counties reached deciders. Down beat a Dublin selection in Division Three, Armagh lost to Roscommon in Division Five and Tyrone beat Fermanagh in Division Six.

Hope for the future? Hopefully. Optimism? It’s Ulster hurling, what do you think?

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