Down out to repeat victory over Carlow in League opener
Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Down v Carlow (tomorrow, Ballycran, 1pm)
DOWN kick-started last year’s League campaign with victory over Carlow – and they will be aiming to make a flying start to their 2022 campaign when the Barrowsiders make the long trip to Ballycran tomorrow.
Following opening day defeat in Kerry last year, the Ardsmen roared back into the Division 2A promotion shake-up when, despite trailing 1-5 to 0-1 early on, they bounced back to snatch a two-point victory after an enthralling encounter.
Indeed, since taking up the reins in 2018, boss Ronan Sheehan has overseen only victories at McKenna Park – six in total between League and Championship – with Down’s only home defeats in that time coming against Derry at Pairc Esler and Portaferry during the Newry man’s first year at the helm.
After beating Offaly in the Christy Ring Cup semi-final six months earlier, that victory over Carlow last May was another sign of just how far Down have come. Having suffered so many near misses in bids for promotion to 2A in the decade previous, they know they can’t afford to take another backward step.
A win tomorrow would set the tone, but with 2020 Christy Ring champions Kildare and Joe McDonagh Cup holders Westmeath also eyeing a promotion push, consolidation is key.
The Lake County beat Carlow in last week’s Kehoe Cup final, and while Barrowsiders boss Tom Mullally kept Marty Kavanagh in reserve until the second half, the St Mullin’s man is expected to start in Ballycran as they aim to learn lessons from last year’s reversal.
Sheehan is also playing with a strong hand.
Where Down panels might once have been a revolving door from one year to the next, he has largely been able to call upon the same core group during his tenure, with that consistency of selection reflected in consistency of performance on the field.
Portaferry’s Darragh Mallon is back in contention, with the only notable absentees heading into the new campaign injured Ballygalget forward Danny Toner, while club-mate Tim Prenter is part of James McCartan’s Down football panel.
Liatroim’s Ruairi McCrickard looks set to be sidelined for most of the campaign as he requires surgery after picking up a shoulder injury in the Conor McGurk final victory over Donegal, while Newry Shamrocks’ Ruairi Campbell is expected back in the coming weeks.
Sheehan has been able to have a good look at his panel during a busy pre-season, with games against Armagh, Queen’s, Louth and the Tir Chonaill men on the way to lifting the McGurk Cup, before taking on Laois en route to a training weekend in Tipperary.
They faced a Dublin select, while other panel members were sharpened up in a challenge against Sligo. A strong, powerful Carlow represent an entirely different proposition – the serious business starts now.