How will the Ulster counties fare in the McDonagh, Ring, Rackard & Meagher Cups?
Pádraig Kelly assesses what shape the Ulster counties are in ahead of their summer hurling Championship campaigns...
JOE MCDONAGH CUP
Manager: Neal Peden
Captain: Conor McCann
Main man: Loughgiel sharp-shooter James McNaughton has managed to take his incredible club form to county level in recent seasons and he looked at his very best during this year’s League campaign. Was the top-scorer in Division 2A as he hit 2-45 in just five games.
Last year’s highlight: The round two Joe McDonagh Cup win over Carlow would have tasted good given just how tempestuous the game was. Goals from Nigel Elliott and Neil McManus put Antrim in pole position for a final spot, but their form fell off a cliff after that.
Disappointed if they don’t: The Joe McDonagh Cup contains five teams capable of beating each other so Antrim really need to target a final spot. The League showed that they are not far away from Kerry and Westmeath while they beat Offaly as recently as last year and have had great battles with Laois recently.
Next fixture: v Kerry (tomorrow, Dunloy, 5pm)
CHRISTY RING CUP
Manager: John McEvoy
Captain: Seán Cassidy
Main man: Cormac O’Doherty’s hand injury possibly cost Derry the Division 2B table given how heavily he had been scoring in the earlier rounds. If they can keep him fit for the summer then the Oakleaf’s chances of success improve dramatically.
Last year’s highlight: Can only be Cormac O’Doherty’s ‘65’ five minutes into injury time to secure a seven-point Christy Ring group win over Down. He was told it was the last puc of the game and if he had missed, Down would have reached the last four on scoring difference instead. Razor thin margins, but O’Doherty kept his cool.
Disappointed if they don’t: A lot depends on the availability of their dual players but they’ll be disappointed not to come out of their group having already beaten Wicklow, Down and Derry this season.
Next fixture: v Down (tomorrow, Ballycran, 3pm)
Manager: Mickey McCann
Captain: Danny Cullen
Main man: A calf injury caused Declan Coulter some problems during the League but there’s no doubting that if he’s fully fit, he will be one of the most prolific attackers in the Christy Ring Cup.
Last year’s highlight: Easy – their Nicky Rackard final win over Warwickshire last June. Declan Coulter and Gavin Browne got the goals as they overcame a four-point half-time deficit to win by seven.
Disappointed if they don’t: Relegation from Division 2B suggests that it could be a difficult summer but they’ll target a win against Wicklow and they’ll aim to be much more competitive with Down and Derry than they were in the League.
Next fixture: v Wicklow (Sunday, Letterkenny, 2pm)
Manager: Ronan Sheehan
Captain: Stephen Keith
Main man: Attacker Daithí Sands provided a real goal threat for Down throughout the League and he’ll be hoping to raise a couple more green flags in the coming months. Hit the net against Wicklow and followed it up with a brace of goals against Donegal.
Last year’s highlight: Heartbreak accompanied them last year as they lost the Division 2B final and were dramatically denied a knock-out spot in the Christy Ring by a late Derry score. There were highs though, and a young Down side winning in London in the Championship was a great result.
Disappointed if they don’t: Given what happened last season, a spot in the semi-finals will be the minimum target for Ronan Sheehan’s side, and then they can get stuck into some Division 2A opposition from there.
Next fixture: v Derry (tomorrow, Ballycran, 3pm)
Picture by Philip Walsh
NICKY RACKARD CUP
Manager: Pádraig O’Connor
Captain: Stephen Reneghan
Main man: With so many key men stepping away in recent seasons, particularly in attack, there is more pressure on full-forward Eoin McGuinness to deliver big scores. Has the physicality to trouble any defender and is a real goal threat.
Last year’s highlight: A young Armagh side suffered badly in the Christy Ring Cup and the League campaign wasn’t much better. They did manage one win though, a six-point success in Derry when Eoin McGuinness and David McCreesh grabbed goals.
Disappointed if they don’t: The Orchard county may be badly lacking in experience but they will still feel that they have more than enough to go far in this year’s competition. Anything other than a fourth final appearance in five years would be a let down.
Next fixture: v Monaghan (tomorrow, Athletic Grounds, 3pm)
Manager: Trevor Hilliard
Captain: Fergal Rafter
Main man: Peter Treanor was named in attack at times during the League but he can play pretty much anywhere on the pitch and you can guarantee he will stand out. By the time the Championship rolls around don’t be surprised to see him back at centre half-back where he always excels.
Last year’s highlight: After an underwhelming League campaign Monaghan responded well in the Nicky Rackard and managed to get out of their group. Donegal were too strong in the semi-final but reaching that stage was a good showing.
Disappointed if they don’t: Go one better than last year. They have reached the Nicky Rackard semi-final for the last two seasons but have been unable to get to the final. Taking that step will be the key aim this summer.
Next fixture: v Armagh (tomorrow, Athletic Grounds, 3pm)
Manager: Mattie Lennon
Captain: Dermot Begley
Main man: An obvious choice but it can only be Damian Casey who continues to produce some incredible attacking performances in county colours. Found the net in four of Tyrone’s five League games and ended with 4-45.
Last year’s highlight: Tyrone needed to win in Leitrim to reach the Nicky Rackard semi-finals last year and second-half goals from Damian Casey and Aidan Kelly secured a path to the last four.
Disappointed if they don’t: Tyrone haven’t reached the final since their 2014 success against Fingal and that will be the target for Mattie Lennon’s charges.
Next fixture: v Mayo (Sunday, Healy Park, 2pm)
LORY MEAGHER CUP
Manager: Michael Carr
Captain: Kevin Conneely
Main man: Kevin Conneely has been a key player ever since Cavan returned to competitive action and his scoring threat from play and frees is vital for the Breffni county.
Last year’s highlight: The Breffni county dipped their toes back into competitive action in the 2017 Lory Meagher Cup and just completing a full League and Championship programme last season was a great boost.
Disappointed if they don’t: Cavan already seem to be making big improvements and they’ll back themselves against both Fermanagh and Leitrim, so a final spot isn’t beyond the realms of possibilities.
Next fixture: v Fermanagh (Saturday, May 18, Kingspan Breffni, 5pm)
Manager: Seán Duffy
Captain: Shea Curran
Main man: Rory Porteous is a real presence for Fermanagh in the full-back line and he is a player manager Sean Duffy will look for in order to keep opposition threats quiet.
Last year’s highlight: Given that Fermanagh didn’t actually win a game last season, their draw with Cavan in the Lory Meagher Cup was probably their best moment. Understandably it’s not a year they will remember fondly.
Disappointed if they don’t: Lancashire look a safe bet to get back to the final but Fermanagh will hope to be the county that joins them in the showpiece game.
Next fixture: v Cavan (Saturday, May 18, Kingspan Breffni, 5pm)