Weakened Down hurlers face toughest assignment against Carlow but can still eye promotion

Down's Ronan Sheehan says fixture lists can overburden dual counties and can in effect drag down standards
Down's Ronan Sheehan says fixture lists can overburden dual counties and can in effect drag down standards Ronan Sheehan's glass is still half full as they travel to Carlow
Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Carlow v Down (Sunday, Netwatch Cullen Park, 2pm)

By Brendan Crossan

ONE glance at Division 2A and most people’s money will be on Carlow and Laois moving up to become part of a new Division 1B next season.

And that money may ultimately be well placed by the time we reach the business end of the division.

But the way the hurling leagues are calibrated this year – with an eye on a rejig for 2025 – a third-place finish carries plenty of incentive for the chasing pack, notably Down, Kerry and Meath.

The winners of Division 2A – and no-one is expecting Carlow to slip up at this stage having already taken the scalp of Laois in O’Moore Park – will be automatically promoted and take their place in a League final.

Second and third place, meanwhile, will face-off in a league semi-final and the winners will also move up to Division One next season.

They suffered a seven-point loss to Laois in their League opener but in their gutsy win over Kerry and drawing with Kildare in their last two outings, the Down hurlers are showing enough good form to suggest they can pinch third spot – not that they’re conceding second to Laois just yet.

Win one of their last two games against Carlow or Meath and the odds would be in their favour of snatching third spot.

“Our aim is a League semi-final, and we’re in a good position,” stated Down boss Ronan Sheehan.

“You are then 70 minutes away from Division One hurling when you reach a League semi-final this year [as both finalists go up]. We need to win one of our next two matches, but we’ll not worry about that just now.”

Carlow, who will compete in this year’s Leinster SHC round robin courtesy of their Joe McDonagh win last season, are 70 minutes away from Division 1B hurling themselves as they welcome Down to Cullen Park on Sunday afternoon.

“This is a massive game for Carlow hurling on Sunday as they have the chance to reach a divisional final and as a consequence a place in Division 1B next season.”

Danny Toner roars with delight after scoring Down's second goal in Saturday's victory over Kerry
Danny Toner is back with the Down hurlers and has been in good scoring form for the Ardsmen

So, playing Carlow a week later might have been a better bet for Down as they face into what will probably be their toughest examination to date.

“I would argue Carlow are, on-form, the best team in the division,” Sheehan said.

“They won the McDonagh Cup last year and they’ve beaten Laois already in the League, so I’d say Carlow are the biggest challenge.

“Carlow’s forward line, in particular Chris Nolan and Marty Kavanagh, are as good as anybody in the McCarthy Cup. They would get on any team in Ireland because they are fabulous hurlers – and when you talk about them in the context of Division 2A, that’s a very difficult partnership to handle. That’s the reality when you’re facing Carlow.”

When the two counties squared off in round three of the Joe McDonagh in Ballycran last May, Nolan (2-4) and Kavanagh (1-11) hit a combined 3-15.

Weakened by injuries that day, Down made a decent fist of it amassing 28 points. Carlow registered 29 scores on the day but six of theirs were green flags as the home side paid the cost for a disastrous opening half.

It’s not win-or-bust for Down as they will in all likelihood have another bite at the promotion cherry at home to Meath next weekend.

Portaferry quartet Finn Turpin, Tom McGrattan, Caolan Taggart and Barry Trainor – all key cogs in the Down wheel – are missing the Carlow tie, but the form of Eoghan Sands, Donal Hughes and Tim Prenter can cause tomorrow’s hosts considerable bother.

Whether it’s enough to derail Carlow’s push for promotion is doubtful given the heavy artillery the hosts boast in attack.