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Hurling Review of the Year: Ulster counties with reasons to be cheerful

Down skipper Stephen Keith with the NHL Division 2B trophy after their final win over Derry. Picture by Louis McNally 
Seamus Maloney

THE bare numbers of 2020 are pretty kind to Ulster hurling.

Of the eight finals available to northern county teams, there was a representative from the province in seven of them. In five of those deciders, an Ulster side brought home the silverware.

Context is, however, everything.

All this was achieved in the downstairs part of hurling’s stately home.

Upstairs, the lofty business was conducted a world away, though at least Antrim will get to stake their claim to stay at the top table after beating Kerry in both their finals in League and Championship to cap a superb first season under Darren Gleeson.

It’s taken Antrim five years to drag themselves back up to the top stratum of Championship hurling, while it’s two seasons since they were in Division One of the League.

They were a few days from playing Kerry in the Division 2A final at Croke Park when Covid shut the whole thing down and they had to wait seven months before getting the getting their promotion chance – and taking it – against the Kingdom in Tullamore.

Even after losing Neil McManus a couple of minutes into the final they took control and, despite  gifting Kerry a couple of goals with defensive howlers, ran out three-point winners while being much better than that.

When they moved into the McDonagh Cup they looked unstoppable, making light of the absence of McManus and a slew of starters due to Covid protocols.

The only speed bump was the trip to Carlow when they needed an injury-time goal from Domhnall Nugent to grab to draw. Apart from that they moved serenely into another final clash with Kerry, and the county was determined to make the most of it.

There wasn’t any more at stake for Antrim than there had been in the two Christy Ring Cup finals they lost to Meath then Carlow in 2016 and 2017.

But Antrim hyped it up a storm and the fact it was on All-Ireland final day – even with Croke Park empty and it being pitch dark at four in the afternoon – did seem to give it some extra pizazz.

Perhaps the added excitement came from the feeling that this Antrim set-up is on the verge of something special, but when the final came around they looked to be on the verge of an enormous letdown.

In truth, they only really played for around half-an-hour of the more than 75 minutes of action, but that was enough as they held on to win by two points.

Donal Óg Cusack – armed with a track record of sweeping statements about Ulster hurling based one match worth of evidence – immediately rained on the parade by predicting beatings aplenty based on the Kerry performance.

On the face of it he’s right, but judging Antrim by their worst Championship performance of the year didn’t change it being enough to make 2020 a roaring success for the Saffrons.

Down almost aped Antrim’s achievements the level below them, although in practical terms Ronan Sheehan’s side should head into 2021 every bit as satisfied with themselves as Gleeson’s men, and with good reason.

Down had toiled in Division 2B since 2013 and missed out on promotion with three final defeats, with another two last-day losses costing them final places.

After losing to Derry on the opening day of the League, Sheehan’s side rattled off four wins in-a-row to set up a final rematch with the Oak Leafers which, like Antrim’s clash with Kerry, was put on hold during the county shutdown.

When they came back, Down held their nerve against Derry and took the vitals goal chances when they came to claim promotion.

Championship promotion followed, although that was thanks to the decision to expand the Joe McDonagh Cup for next season, meaning simply reaching the Christy Ring Cup final – where they lost to Kildare – was enough to go up. But “simply” is no way to describe how they reached the Christy Ring final.

Offaly have fallen a long way, but Down’s win over the Faithful at Páirc Esler is up there with every hurling moment this year.

A extra-time thriller was decided with the first ever inter-county hurling penalty shoot-out, with Down captain Stephen Keith saving Offaly’s final penalty before blasting in Down’s winner.

Donegal went one better than Down by bringing home the cup in both League and Championship, although the GAA’s tinkering that benefited Down worked against Donegal, who didn’t win promotion along with the Nicky Rackard Cup.

That won’t necessarily hurt Mickey McCann’s men, and a spring mixing with Kildare, London, Derry and a generally much higher standard of hurling will have them well-placed to defend the title they surprisingly won against Mayo at Croke Park, to add to their Division 3A final over  Armagh in March.

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IT’S probably no coincidence that both Down and Antrim were able to carry their spring form into the Championship, via a League final win, having both run off excellent club championships during the summer window.

The sharpness that came from brutally hard-won domestic silverware – Dunloy beat Loughgiel in the Antrim final while Portaferry needed a replay to beat Ballycran in Down – was evident in both Gleeson’s and Sheehan’s squads.

Ulster’s reigning club masters Slaughtneil cruised to an eighth successive Oak Leaf crown but had to make do with that after the provincial championships were scrapped.

They can at least claim to have played their part in perhaps the game of the year, and produced the best performance by an Ulster side in any match in 2020, in their
All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Ballyhale in the first week of January.

It was a concussive, heavyweight encounter, with the eventual and now eight-time champions from Kilkenny finding a couple more swings at the end to tilt it their
way.

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FOR Dublin, read Limerick. That seemed to be the consensus after John Kiely’s men wiped the floor with Waterford to win the All-Ireland title after Antrim has raised the Croke Park curtain on December 13.

Declan Hannon captained the powered to the Liam MacCarthy title for the second time in three seasons and they didn’t look troubled for a second by a Waterford side who didn’t appear to be on the same planet as their opponents.

The final margin of 11 points came after wins of 10 (Clare), nine (Tipperary), four (Waterford) and three (Galway) in Limerick’s Championship run.

Impressive but hardly earth shattering, and certain not Dublin footballers-level of dominance.

As good as they are, they’re entirely capable of coming out the wrong side of a knockout Championship game against a handful of sides – Kilkenny, Galway, Cork, Tipperary, Clare would all fancy their chances.

Next year’s Championship will be run on the same basis as this year’s, with no round-robin in Munster or Leinster – a shame for Antrim, who would have relished they volume of top-class matches that would have brought along with Division One clashes against Kilkenny, Wexford, Clare and Dublin.

That lack of a round-robin cushion may leave Limerick more vulnerable. Last year’s semi-final loss to Kilkenny was written off as an aberration, a clearly superior side caught on the hop. But they lost twice in Munster in 2019 too. This isn’t to denigrate their achievement this year – they won every competitive match they played including the Munster opener against Clare that conveniently doubled as the League final.

But Limerick will still face live contenders in 2021.

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