Down looking to the long-term but upset not beyond them in Royal rumble for Christy Ring title
Christy Ring Cup final: Down v Meath (today, 2pm, Croke Park, live on TG4 YouTube channel)
RONAN Sheehan hopes to be heading back up the road this evening with the Christy Ring Cup taking pride of place on the Down team bus. His long-term vision, however, dictates that whatever the result, today will only be the starting point for this emerging group.
When the Ardsmen landed the Christy Ring six years ago, they were backboned by the experience of seasoned campaigners like Fintan Conway, Conor Woods, Paul Braniff and Gareth Johnston.
The average age of the class of 2019 is just 23, with Sheehan placing his faith in youth in a bid to lay solid foundations.
Today’s opponents, Meath, represent the stiffest test they will have faced this year. Like Sheehan, Nick Fitzgerald has also drafted in a host of up-and-coming stars and today will be their first taste of Croke Park.
Crucially, though, many also sampled the higher standard of the Joe McDonagh Cup last year, while the Royals spent the spring in Division 2A, a level above that of the Ardsmen.
Down have McDonagh Cup ambitions too, but Sheehan wants to know they are ready when the time comes.
Today will show him exactly where they stand.
“This experience will hopefully stand to them as they go through the next seven or eight years,” said the Newry Shamrocks stalwart.
“We want to be in the McDonagh Cup – we want to pushing with the Westmeaths, the Kerrys, the Antrims. The lads in the dressing room between 18 and 22, 23 are used to competing with those teams, used to beating them.
“Now, we’ve definitely got a bit of work to do at U17, U15 level because you need to create that conveyor belt, and that’s where the likes of Westmeath have been a wee bit better than us. You always need to have quality coming behind.
“To be a strong McDonagh Cup team, and a consistent McDonagh Cup team, is where we want to be over the next three to five years. That won’t be easy, there’s a lot of other counties want to do the same.
“We don’t have the same pool of players as other counties, we’re primarily still drawn from the three clubs here [Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry]. Now it’s great that the likes of Liatroim, Newry Shamrocks, Ballela and the two Belfast clubs [Carryduff and Bredagh] are all contributing players.
“We were very clear when we took the job that we were going to bring the young lads in; we were going to persevere with them because we knew we had that committed core.”
Down will be without Ruairi McCrickard after his attempt to overturn a one-match ban was unsuccessful. He was shown a red card in the semi-final win over Roscommon.
However, experienced forward Danny Toner – one of four survivors from the 2013 success – is restored to the starting line-up having missed that clash with the Rossies. His know-how, and that of Stephen Keith, Matt Conlon, John McManus and Paul Sheehan, will be invaluable.
With the pace and mobility of the Sands brothers, Eoghan and Daithi, Down will look to unsettle the Meath full-back line early on, though the Royals have already passed some stiff tests to reach this stage – and none moreso than their last four defeat of Derry.
Unsurprisingly, Fitzgerald has named an unchanged starting 15, which means Padraig Hanrahan and Eamon O Donnchadha miss out through injury while Barry Slevin and Adam Gannon retain their places.
Meath are a few more years along the road and, with the sharp-shooting Jack Regan among their ranks, rightly go in as heavy favourites.
If the odds were to be upset it would give Down a huge surge heading into 2020. But whether it’s next year or not, they will hope that bigger days lie ahead in the not-too-distant future.
Down: S Keith; T Murray, C Taggart, D Mallon; M Fisher, J McManus, M Conlon; L Savage, P Savage; D Toner, P Sheehan, T Prenter; D Sands, E Sands, O MacManus
Meath: S McGann; G Murphy, D Kelly, S Whitty; S Brennan, K Keoghan, J Kelly; S Geraghty, C McCabe; D Healy, B Slevin, J Regan; G McGowan, A Douglas, A Gannon