Hurling & Camogie

Down face difficult start in bid to repeat heroics of 2022

Down must do without forward Daithi Sands and brother Eoghan for tomorrow's National League opener against Offaly at McKenna Park. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Down must do without forward Daithi Sands and brother Eoghan for tomorrow's National League opener against Offaly at McKenna Park. Picture by Seamus Loughran

Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Down v Offaly (tomorrow, Ballycran, 1pm)

THE last-gasp drama of victory over Carlow set the tone for an unexpected promotion charge last year, but repeating that opening day dose against Offaly will require Down stepping up to another level for Down.

No matter what transpires at McKenna Park, the Ardsmen’s campaign is unlikely to hinge on the final outcome tomorrow. Indeed, a look at the campaign calendar indicates their only other home game, against promoted Derry on March 12, already has D-day potential for these Ulster rivals.

“There’s nothing in this League,” said boss Ronan Sheehan.

“Last year we did fantastically to get to a League final, but if you look back at all those games, there was only a couple of points in them.

“We certainly are targeting staying in Division 2A, with anything over and above that a bonus. But I would argue that, probably with the exception of Offaly and, to an extent, Kerry, every other team is looking at it the exact same way.”

Under new boss Johnny Kelly, who took over from Michael Fennelly last year, the Faithful’s sights are set firmly on a swift return to Division One.

They have Oisín Kelly back for the first time since their 2021 Christy Ring Cup success, while Cillian Kiely and Eimhin Kelly are also back in harness.

Defender Ben Conneely and attacker Eoghan Cahill played no part in last month’s Walsh Cup but are expected to come back in today, with Kelly’s men targeting a fast start.

Offay, though, should hold no fear for Down – especially in Ballycran.

Last year they were put to the pin of their collars before leaving the Ards with a five point victory in the Joe McDonagh Cup. And, having beaten the likes of Kerry and Westmeath in the past 12 months, any self-doubt Sheehan’s side may once have had should be well and truly buried.

That said, Down’s cause is not helped in the opening weeks of the League by the absence of some key men. The talismanic Conor Woods - who led the charge against Offaly before a broken finger forced him off - has retired, with his calming influence and accuracy from distance hard to replace.

Midfielder Donal Hughes played a big part in the Division 2A run last year but is currently travelling, so too is influential forward Eoghan Sands.

His brother Daithi, whose pace and directness offers Down a different dimension up top, is unlikely to feature for another few weeks due to injury, while Portaferry defender Darragh Mallon and Ballygalget dynamo are also unavailable for tomorrow’s game.

The good news, however, is that Liatroim full-back Ruairi McCrickard – ruled out last year with a dislocated shoulder – is back in the frame, while there is a talented young crop coming through too.

Teenage Portaferry goalkeeper Pearse Smyth looking like a long-term replacement for Stephen Keith, while Finn Turpin and Tom McGrattan pack serious potential. That’s why retaining their Division 2A status for a fourth year is crucial.

“The quality in this division because the quality, relative to the one below it, is night and day,” said Sheehan.

“For the development of the young players we have coming through, we want to be giving them the opportunity to test themselves at the highest possible level.”