Hurling & Camogie

Eoghan Sands: ‘The whole time I was away I was following the boys as much as I could’

Joe McDonagh Cup: Down v Meath (Saturday, Ballycran, 2pm)

Down's Eoghan Sands and Meath's Nicholas Potterton in action during the Allianz Hurling Division 2 Round 5 between Down and Meath at McKenna Park,Ballycran on 03-16-2024. Pic Philip Walsh
Eoghan Sands hopes Down can maintain their impressive recent run against Meath when the counties collide in Saturday's Joe McDonagh Cup opener in Ballycran. Pic Philip Walsh

LAST year was a strange sort of one for Eoghan Sands - brilliant from a personal perspective, but odd, at times uneasy, in hurling terms.

Having given so much to Portaferry and Down over the past decade, Sands and girlfriend Maeve Lofthouse decided to take some time out to see some of the world.

Not long after they left Ireland, heading for a tour of south-east Asia via a short stop-over with Maeve’s sister in Qatar, he found himself in “a dodgy enough hostel” in Phuket, crouched over an iPhone watching a stream of his beloved Ports being put to the sword by Slaughtneil in their November 2022 Ulster club semi-final.

As the couple – who got engaged on their travels - journeyed through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Phillipines, Malaysia, Singapore, Bali and Indonesia before returning home 12 months ago, Sands would find himself scrolling through X most weekends for updates on Down’s fortunes.

“The whole time I was away I was following the boys as much as I could,” he says, “I was still on the WhatsApp group because I had told Ronan [Sheehan] when I was coming home so he was keeping me in the loop.

“It was hard being away and watching, but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. The inter-county scene is so intense, it’s all-consuming when you’re in it... I’ve noticed that since I’ve been back, it takes up so much of your time, so it was nice to give the body a bit of a break.

“I’ve had a few injuries through the years and it definitely rejuvenated me... hopefully it extended my career by taking that break. Even for the head it was a good thing; you come back feeling refreshed.”

Down had already secured their Division 2A status – just – by the time he returned, with Sands coming on against Carlow before lining out as the Ardsmen avoided the drop to the Christy Ring Cup with their best performance of the year when beating Kildare.

This year has been a different story, however. Although injuries have been a recurring theme, Down pushed towards the top end of Division 2A, forcing their way into a League semi-final against Laois.

Victory would have sealed promotion, but it wasn’t to be. That was doubly frustrating for Sands as he was forced to watch from the wings after being sent off in the final League game against Meath – tomorrow’s opponents on the opening weekend of Joe McDonagh Cup action.

He was in Stockholm with work when the appeal was heard, but there was to be no respite as the referee’s decision was upheld.

“It was an innocuous challenge, I wasn’t even looking at your man... I would’ve needed video from the other side but there was none unfortunately,” said the 29-year-old.

“It was frustrating when it happened – even at the time, it was only a couple of minutes into the second half, Meath had us under the cosh. We needed to win by nine and we could actually have been losing at the time I went off too... to miss the League semi-final was obviously disappointing.

“We’ve put ourselves in that position twice now, the final against Westmeath a couple of years ago and then the League semi, that was our shot to get to Division One.

“We’ve come up short both times, maybe we just are that slight bit off that level at the minute, but that’s the level we want to be playing at.”

The McDonagh Cup, though, is always a good testing ground.

Former Meath player Stephen Clynch is in caretaker control following the shock departure manager Seoirse Bulfin three weeks ago, but Sands knows Down cannot afford to take anything for granted.

“Daithi got a lot of space that day and got three goals - I don’t think that’ll happen again at the weekend,” he said of his younger brother’s scoring feats in the League meeting.

“We have three home games at home in the McDonagh, and we tend to be fairly hard to beat in McKenna Park. We have to try and make that advantage count where we can.”