Tyrone and Armagh clash in Conor McGurk Cup
Conor McGurk Cup, Group A, round 2: Armagh v Tyrone (tomorrow, The Dub, 2.30pm)
THESE Ulster neighbours go into the first of three possible meetings this season on the back of contrasting results in their McGurk Cup openers.
Tyrone travelled to Celtic Park and enjoyed a nine-point (0-20 to 0-11) win over Derry while a fledgling Armagh side was well beaten (4-17 to 1-7) by Ulster University when they tangled with the students at Jordanstown on December 17.
Despite the 19-point loss, Orchard county manager Padraig O'Connor saw enough glimpses of promise in the second half of that game to give him some encouragement for the future.
“We were in a very heavy pre-season and Jordanstown were at a different stage of their season,” he said.
“The second half was positive and the guys showed in defence and attack that they have the heart and the appetite for the game. It's unfortunate the way the result went but we wouldn't be too disheartened with it, we're at a different stage than Jordanstown at present.
“They're in championship mode and we're in pre-season. They had five or six games behind them whereas it was just our second game, we had played at challenge, and it will take a while for the lads to get to know each other and what they are capable of.”
After the retirements of experienced stars like Cahal and David Carvill and the loss of Declan Coulter (now resident in and playing with Donegal) O'Connor has a major rebuilding job on his hands with Armagh.
He still has the likes of skipper Stephen Renaghan, vice-captain Paddy McGrane, Simon Doherty, Ciaran Clifford and the McGuinness brothers Artie and Owen to provide leadership to new faces including Caolan Rice and Davy Bridges (Cuchullains), Danny Magee and Odhran McCann (Sean Treacys and Killeavy pair Ben McKeown, Mattie McEvoy.
“There are a lot of new or newish guys who don't have a lot of experience,” O'Connor explained.
“It's a whole rebuilding process now and that's how it goes with county teams.
“People retire and they have to get replaced and you move forward. Our remit is to get this team experience of inter-county hurling and help them to move up the levels again.
“The new lads are hungry for success and they want to get Armagh back to where we were in 2016 and we feel they are capable of that. They will need experience in the meantime but they are a good bunch, a close-knit bunch, who are working very hard together.”
O'Connor served as assistant-manager to Sylvester McConnell during an era of unprecedented success for Armagh hurling. The Orchard county were promoted to Division 2A of the NHL and were also Nicky Rackard Cup finalists for three years in-a-row.
He took over as manager after Paddy Kelly stepped down from the role in April and has recuited former Derry star Ruairi Convery to his management team alongside Ruairi McGrattan and James Doyle.
“Ruairi brings a lot of experience with him and he has gelled really well with the lads; quite a few of them have played against him,” O'Connor explained.
“His coaching ability is first class and he has fitted in really well with the management team and with the players. It's as if he's been in Armagh for years.”
Tyrone begin their NHL Division 3A campaign against Lancashire on Saturday, January 26 while Armagh begin theirs against Monaghan in Inniskeen the following day. After relegation last year, O'Connor wants his side to hit the ground running in their 2019 League programme.
“It's time that everybody puts their shoulder to the wheel,” he said.
“We have Tyrone in the League and hopefully we'll have them in the Nicky Rackard Cup also and it will be a big, physical test.
“They will be introducing some younger guys and they all need experience.
“We're trying to gel the team together and this will be our last competitive game before we start the League against Monaghan so a performance is definitely what we require. We're looking for the boys to step up the plate in what will undoubtedly be a physical battle.”