Hurling and camogie

Down great Noel Sands expresses despair with the state of Ulster hurling

Noel Sands played in two All-Ireland semi-finals for Down and was nominated for an Allstar on three separate occasions
Pádraig Ó Meiscill

THAT Noel Sands once hit a goal and three points for Down in an All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final against Cork seems barely credible these days. But it happened all the same.

The year was 1992 and Down had won their first Ulster Senior Hurling Championship title in more than half-a-century, hammering Antrim in Casement Park, earning them an automatic spot in the All-Ireland semi-finals. 

They lost to the Rebels, but they were far from humiliated.

Sands finished three points behind Kilkenny’s DJ Carey in the Championship top scorers’ chart that year and was nominated for an Allstar. 

In later years, he won two more Ulster titles, played in two All-Ireland quarter-finals and another semi-final, this time against Offaly, and was nominated twice more for an Allstar.

This is the way things used to be for the cream of Ulster’s hurling crop. They never quite got to sit at the head of the table, but they were at the top table all the same. This is maybe why Sands is so frustrated with the current state of hurling in the province.

“Ulster hurling is in serious decline and, when you hear people discussing it and not doing anything about it, it really bugs me,” the Portaferry clubman says.

Sands was speaking ahead of this weekend’s Ulster SHC final between Antrim and Armagh, when the prospect of the northern champions entering the All-Ireland series will be but a wistful memory. 

Instead, both finalists will have at least one eye on their upcoming games in the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard cups respectively.

“There is no easy solution to the Ulster Championship,” he adds.

“The prestige has gone out of it. Everybody wants to win an Ulster Championship but, at the end of the day, the value of it has been belittled by Croke Park. 

“It used to be, if you won it, you’d get to the quarter-final stage of the Liam MacCarthy, but they must’ve looked at it and thought, ‘these teams are never going to win a Liam MacCarthy’, but they’ve never done anything about it to improve it.”

This sense of stasis has led to chaos in Ulster in recent years, with confusion over games and their scheduling, and teams opting out of competing. 

Even though the Ulster Council has attempted to find a solution to fixture build-up and confusion this year, playing the Championship over a fortnight in April, there has been controversy over the playing of the final six days before the commencement of the lower-grade national tournaments.

“For the last five or six years, teams have been pulling out of the Ulster Championship because the prestige of getting to a Liam MacCarthy Cup quarter-final has gone,” Sands notes.

“You’re trying to put your finger on it and say ‘what has happened here?’. ‘Why has Ulster hurling gone downhill so much over the last few years?’. You can blame the players to a certain degree but, at the same time, what have the Ulster Council or anybody else done about improving the standards of hurling?

“I look at the Ulster Championship and they just do it to save face. They look at it and they say, ‘we better do something about this’, but this had been coming down the line for the last three or four years. 

“To be honest, I was hoping somebody would draw [in the semi-finals] just to see what would happen. I mean when were they going to play the replay?”

As well as playing hurling at the highest level, Sands has been coaching Portaferry’s stick men for the guts of 30 years, so he’s not short on insight into what motivates players to go the extra mile.

“They need to give the lesser teams in Ulster or Leinster or wherever a chance to showcase their hurling and to demonstrate that they’re not that bad,” he argues.

“Every team in the country, no matter who you are, whether you’re Antrim, Louth, Kilkenny or Galway, they all slog their guts out over a period of time. 

“Croke Park haven’t done us any favours in a while. I mean, look at Gaelic football, it’s promoted better, it’s given a better stage. It’s marketed better.

“I don’t get it. We need to do something, we need our people in there saying something.”

If further evidence was required of the continuing difficulties Ulster hurling finds itself in, the decision by Donegal to pull out of their Ulster Championship relegation play-off with fellow beaten
semi-finalists Down will suffice for this week alone.

However, Sands isn’t putting the boot into Tír Chonaill over their decision, which was perhaps taken with their April 22 Nicky Rackard opener against Armagh in mind. 

In his view, if there is to be a meaningful improvement in the fortunes of Ulster hurling and a greater buy-in to the Championship across the province, it has to come from a bottom up approach.

“I can understand teams saying ‘why should we go and play in the Ulster Championship and then have a Christy Ring or other competition the following week?’. The supposedly serious people haven’t been serious enough about it. I don’t know why people bother going to meetings anymore.

“They need to be asking people on the ground what they think. Ask the people on the ground the serious question: Is this [Ulster Championship] viable or is it not? Ask the Ulster hurling people is it viable.

“You go and ask people to play the Liam MacCarthy over six weeks and there’d be a serious outcry.”

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Hurling and camogie