Derry can keep up winning ways in Ring opener against Wicklow
Christy Ring Cup round one: Derry v Wicklow (tomorrow, Celtic Park, 1pm)
MAINTAINING momentum is the key for Derry as they begin their Christy Ring Cup campaign against Wicklow at Celtic Park tomorrow.
Dominic McKinley and Cormac Donnelly’s men come into the game with the winds of a productive League at their backs, promotion from Division 2B finally secured last weekend when Sligo were downed in Ederney.
Escaping 2B is one thing, but the manner in which it was achieved offers hope that Derry are at the beginning of an upward trajectory that can serve them well not only in the Christy Ring, but as the foundation stones are laid for the step up that awaits in 2023.
The Oak Leafs saw off all comers to finish top of the table and, having seen previous promotion attempts fall at the final hurdle, Derry made no mistake against the Yeatsmen.
At the start of the year, getting out of 2B was the main objective. After going toe-to-toe with Down in recent years, Derry have watched as their Ulster rivals not only consolidated their place in Division 2A, but made massive strides in the process.
Wins over Carlow, Meath, Westmeath and Kerry saw them finish top of the pile before losing out in the Division 2A final last weekend. And the traits that have defined Down’s progress – consistency of selection and panel stability – are evident in Derry’s ascent too.
“My first year with Derry hurlers was seven years ago, we were in 2A, and I haven’t played in 2A since,” said defensive stalwart Meehaul McGrath.
“For four or five years there Down and Derry were playing in the same division. It was nip and tuck, we were beating them, they were beating us, so seeing what Down are doing probably would give you a bit of confidence going into 2A.
“For a good few years we struggled to get a strong panel. Other years you probably had 25 or 26 men, and then if you’ve three or four men injured, you’re down, where this year we’re up above 30 of a panel.
“People want to play, and keeping a strong panel together is important. For a few years people were just dropping in, choosing when to come and go to be honest.
“You can see where Down have gone to now whenever people do buy in. You get rewards.”
The next step is to try and edge towards the next level in Championship too – with a place in the Joe McDonagh Cup part on Derry’s horizon.
However, McGrath knows there is still a gap to be bridged, with the Christy Ring offering a test of their mettle in the here and now. And the Oak Leafs will be keen to swiftly erase the memories of last year’s final defeat to Offaly at Croke Park.
“I don’t think people ever forget about being beat by 44 points in a Christy Ring final,” admits the Slaughtneil man.
Considering they were plying their trade in Division One six months later, it still seems ludicrous that the Faithful ever found themselves competing in hurling’s third-tier competition.
Offaly blazed beyond everybody before sweeping aside Derry but, with 2020 Christy Ring champions Kildare coming down from the McDonagh, promotion looks a more realistic proposition this year than last.
“We are going in [to the Christy Ring] unbeaten, but we’re still not going into the competition as favourites,” said McGrath.
“Kildare are playing the League above us, they did well there, and they’re playing a higher standard than us. We played Kildare in Kildare last year and they gave us a right beating.
“Joe McDonagh, ultimately long-term, is probably where Derry want to go to but Kildare have taken Offaly’s place in the Christy Ring, so they’ll be the top team.”
The Oak Leafs will have a clearer idea how they’re shaping up after meeting the Lilywhites on April 23 but, for now, momentum must be maintained. Derry have already beaten Wicklow this year, leaving Aughrim with 28 points to spare back in February.
The Garden County come in on a high after saving their own skin in last weekend’s 2B relegation play-off victory over Mayo, but Derry should be able to comfortably their Christy Ring campaign off to a winning start.