Winner-takes-all clash for Tyrone and Donegal as promotion up for grabs
Allianz Hurling League 3A final: Donegal v Tyrone (Saturday, Celtic Park, 2pm)
AFTER two games and one win apiece, it’s winner-takes-all for either Donegal or Tyrone when they meet at Celtic Park in this afternoon’s Division 3A final.
The pair finished level on eight points with Monaghan, but score difference saw the familiar foes progress to today’s decider in Derry and another close encounter is expected.
Ardal McDermott lost 14 players from last year’s panel but the Tir Chonaill men came flying out of the traps in the League, winning their first four games including a five-point victory over the Red Hands in Letterkenny.
Leading the charge that day was former Tipperary intermediate player Davin Flynn, who bagged 2-8 of their 2-14 total, with fellow new recruit Declan Coulter – formerly of Armagh – also getting on the scoreboard.
But, after a slow start to the League that saw them lose by nine to Monaghan in the opener, Mattie Lennon’s Tyrone started to build momentum and levelled matters up when they next met Donegal at Garvaghey on March 22.
Despite losing Justin Kelly to an early red card, the Red Hands prevailed in difficult conditions, with hotshot Damian Casey the scorer-in-chief as their promotion charge clicked into gear.
And while Tyrone will look to Casey to do damage today, Lennon will be well aware of the threat posed by Coulter at the other end.
Coulter was part of the Armagh side that reached the 2008 Nicky Rackard final under Lennon’s stewardship, and the Derrynoose man is well aware what the talented forward can do.
He said: “Declan’s a quality hurler, he gives them another dimension and another scoring threat.
“They’ve brought in a couple of good lads but they have a number of good hurlers already and it just adds to it. Still, it’s 15 versus 15, we have to deal with it and we’re looking forward to the game.
“We’ve played each other a fair number of times in recent years so we know each other fairly well at this stage. There hasn’t been much between the teams in any of those games, there’s not a lot separating us, and I expect it’ll be the same tomorrow.”
Lennon had previously been in charge of Tyrone from 2013-2015, leading them to Nicky Rackard glory in 2014, and is happy with the progress they have made thus far in his second spell.
He added: “They had a disappointing year last year for one reason or another.
“This year we started slowly but we’ve gradually built it up again and we’re delighted to be in the final. At the start of the year, that’s what we were looking for.
“The lads have trained well all year, we started in December, we didn’t get a huge amount of hurling done in January, but we are where we are and we’re happy enough.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game because Donegal are a good side, there’s no doubt about it.”
The step up from Division 3A to 2B is significant but, while the Tir Chonaill men will likely start as favourites to secure an instant return to hurling’s fourth tier, Lennon feels Tyrone are also capable of competing at a higher level.
“Yeah, I think we are,” continued Lennon, who expected to be without injured pair Aidan Kelly (knee) and Sean Og Grogan (neck).
“I’m always a great believer that you have to push yourself and test yourself against better opposition. Good hurlers will incrementally improve if they’re playing against better teams.
“I know there is a step up and in hurling maybe that step up is bigger than in some of the football leagues, but you have to get up there and test yourself.
“The good hurlers will adapt and hopefully push on for that. We’d love to have a crack at 2B.”