By Damian Dolan
Warwickshire are back in the Nicky Rackard Cup after a nine-year hiatus and manager Tony Joyce and his panel are relishing the prospect.
Joyce will have come full circle when Warwickshire take on Louth in their Rackard opener in May, having been part of the side which flew the flag for hurling in the midlands in the competition from 2005-08, before the introduction of the Lory Meagher.
Warwickshire’s previous dalliance with the Rackard included locking horns with London at Ruislip in the cup’s inaugural year in 2005.
London, captained by current manager Fergus McMahon, went on to win the competition that year, while lining out for Warwickshire at wing back that Ruislip day was Joyce.
After Louth, Monaghan and Longford await, and Joyce is confident that Warwickshire can pick up from where they left off last year, when they beat Leitrim to lift the Lory Meagher Cup at Croke Park.
“If we can win our first two matches (Louth and Monaghan) and get through our group, then we’re in a semi-final and you’ve only got to win another game and you’re back at Croker,” he said.
For Joyce, the ‘promotion’ of Derry and Armagh to the Christy Ring has “opened the door” in the Nicky Rackard, making it a wide-open competition this year. And he’s certainly not ruling out his own side’s chances.
And if Warwickshire’s players needed any further incentive, a GPA Motion to go before Congress for the finals of Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard cups to be played as a double-header, preferably before the Munster and Leinster finals or, alternatively, before the All-Ireland SHC quarter-finals, has certainly helped to focus a few minds in the Warwickshire camp, says Joyce.
Before all of that, however, there’s a National Hurling League Division 3A campaign to prepare for the challenges to come, beginning with Tyrone on 28 January.
Warwickshire may have lost out to Longford in an epic Division 3B final last year, but the powers-that-be saw fit to promote them in order to accommodate the addition of Cavan to Division 3B.
Warwickshire’s Division 3A opponents, Louth, Longford, Monaghan and Tyrone, all compete in the Nicky Rackard, while Roscommon are in the Christy Ring. As preparation for the championship, it couldn’t be better for Joyce’s men.
“They’ll [Tyrone] fancy taking our scalp, but as long as we’re competitive I’ll be happy,” said Joyce, who hopes to arrange a challenge match with McMahon’s London in the coming weeks.
“They’re all playing preseason tournaments at the minute. We’ve got nothing. It would have been good to have hit the ground running with a home match, but when you get promoted you take whatever you get.
“We won’t really know until the day, but we’re hopeful. They’re getting matches so we should be a wee bit off the pace, but hopefully we’ll be there or thereabouts.
“Tyrone will really fancy themselves and Mattie Lennon is a good manager. They’ll see Derry and Armagh going up to the Christy Ring and they’ll think it’s [the Nicky Rackard] theirs.
“But they won’t know much about us, and if we can get a win in Tyrone it will set us up great for the rest of the league. Roscommon will be a good test away from home, but if you’re not going well it will be a tough place to go.”
It’s not Warwickshire’s first venture into Division 3A. They tested themselves there as recent as 2016, having edged out Longford in the previous year’s Division 3B final. But they were immediately relegated after losing all five of their games. Joyce says lessons were learnt.
“It was a better standard of hurling, which suited us, but we died with the fitness because the lads were only training once a week. We looked at that and went three times a week,” he said.
“Last year, in the Division 3B and the Lory Meagher, we came from deep to beat sides in the last 20 minutes.”
That’s exactly what they did in the final against Leitrim, as Warwickshire recovered from a two-poin half-time deficit to claim a second Lory Meagher title with a starting line up containing two English-born hurlers in Erin Go Bragh duo Kieran Boxwell and Tom Kelly, while another two were on the bench that day, Kieran Phelan of Roger Casements and John Mitchels’ Chris Brough.
“It looked like we ran away with it in the end, but it was tough to win. Training three nights a week really showed in those last 10-15 minutes,” said Joyce, who is in his second year as Warwickshire manager.
“People didn’t know who Warwickshire were. They’d know London. But we got a bit of success and coverage last year, and they now know who we are.”
Instrumental to Warwickshire triumph that day was former Antrim star Liam Watson, who chipped in with 0-11f to add to the 5-27 he’d amassed in Warwickshire’s four group games.
However, while Joyce has managed to retain the vast majority of last year’s panel, it remains to be seen if his star man will pull on a Warwickshire jersey again in 2018, with Watson and his wife expecting twins.
“We’ll see what develops. To have him on top of everybody else would be fantastic,” said Joyce, who also hails from Antrim.
“I was over the moon to have him [last year]. He was great with the younger lads and everyone wanted to be at training. His influence on the year, his professional standards, was excellent. He lifted everyone.
“He came up trumps on final day when the rest of the players were maybe a little bit shell-shocked. They played the occasion, he played the match.”
On the plus side, Warwickshire, who have been back training three evenings a week since the beginning of December, have augmented their panel with some attacking quality. Amongst those to come in are Limerick’s Niall Kennedy and Peadar Scally from Westmeath.
From Granagh Ballingarry club, Kennedy won a Munster U21 title with Limerick in 2011 at half forward, and was named in the senior panel for the Waterford Crystal Cup in 2014.
A centre forward, Scally was part of Westmeath U21 side which stunned Kilkenny in the Leinster U21 Championship, and the Westmeath Minor team which the previous year pulled off a shock victory over Wexford.
He helped his club side Clonkill reach the Westmeath SHC final in 2016, only to lose out to Raharney. Joyce has also enlisted the services of a former school friend from his days at CBS in Belfast, Gavin Duffy.
A former Antrim coach, Duffy was also part of the Loughgiel Shamrocks coaching team when they won the All Ireland in 2012. A Shamrocks team that Watson was not only part of, but his hat-trick sealed victory in the final.
“He’s very, very good. The lads are really happy. It’s important to get a new voice in every year,” said Joyce. Now firmly on the map, 2018 promises to be another big year for hurling in Warwickshire.
Warwickshire’s Allianz NHL Division 3A Fixtures
Round 1: Sunday January 28th: Tyrone v Warwickshire
Round 2: Sunday February 4th: Warwickshire v Longford
Round 3: Sunday February 18th: Louth v Warwickshire
Round 4: Sunday February 25th: Warwickshire v Monaghan
Round 5: Sunday March 4th: Roscommon v Warwickshire