Tyrone have chance to sign off season of growth in style at Croke Park
Nicky Rackard Cup final: Mayo v Tyrone (today, Croke Park, 1.30pm, TG4 Sport YouTube)
IT'S been a season of development and progress for the Tyrone hurlers, and they have an opportunity to sign off on the 2021 campaign with a Croke Park title triumph.
Last year's beaten finalists Mayo are the opponents in today's Nicky Rackard Cup final, a trophy the Red Hands have won just once, achieving success in their only previous appearance in the decider back in 2014.
The Connacht side are favourites to come out on top. They operate in a higher division than their Ulster opponents in the Allianz League, and their Rackard Cup displays in recent weeks have suggested they are a rising force.
An impressive semi-final win over Armagh was achieved without top scorer Shane Boland, who missed the 2-23 to 2-9 success due to suspension.
But Tyrone's semi-final defeat of defending champions Donegal marked a major step in the journey they have been travelling under new manager Michael McShane.
Leading marksman Damian Casey is one of the game's most consistent finishers, and another sizeable tally from him will be vital if his side is to get the better of the westerners.
Teenager Cain Ferguson and Conor Grugan, both goal-scorers in last weekend's 2-23 to 1-21 victory over Donegal, also carry a significant attacking threat, hitting a combined total of 2-7 at Carrickmore.
But Mayo have been racking up but scorelines, most recently in their semi-final at Carrick-on-Shannon.
Skipper and dual star Keith Higgins is one of their chief finishers, along with Adrian Phillips and Cathal Freeman.
And the return of accurate free-taker Boland will only add to their firepower up front.
It all adds up to a busy day for the Tyrone defence, in which Chris Kearns has been stoic figure, with important roles also for Conor McNally, Sean Paul McKernan and the versatile Lorcan Devlin, who may also push up front as a target man.
Midfielder Bryan McGurk and the experienced CJ McGourty are others who can have a major influence on the decider.
“Mayo are a formidable team. so are Donegal, who won this competition last year, and they're playing in a League above us,” said Tyrone manager Michael McShane.
But he believes his side is capable of rising to the challenge.
“Actually I think we're playing in a League below where we should be. We have beaten Donegal, we won't fear Mayo.
“We will absolutely grant them all the respect that they're due, but these boys will fear nobody now.
“This is a building project, we're in bonus territory. I didn't think we'd be in Croke Park this year in our first year, especially with Covid.
“We're going to Croke Park full of confidence and hopefully we can get over the line there.”