By Damian Dolan
Warwickshire hurling manager Chris Brough doesn’t want his side’s Houdini-like relegation escape act to be the county’s high-point of the year.
The Exiles overcame a late start, a rout at the hands of Kildare (8-19 to 0-6) and heavy defeats to Wicklow (by 15 points) and Donegal (by 16 points) to sensationally defeat Donegal to retain their Division 2B league status.
But as the team prepares to begin its assault on the Nicky Rackard Cup against Longford at Pearse Park on Sunday – the scene of their dramatic two-point play-off win over Donegal – Brough has challenged his players to create another moment to savour in 2019.
They open their Nicky Rackard Cup campaign against Longford on Sunday at Pearse Park (1pm).
“I don’t want Donegal to be the highlight of the season,” Brough told the Irish World.
“It was massive, but we want the championship to better it. We want to get to a semi-final and then the final. That’s our aim.”
He added: “We always knew that once we got our full squad together we’d give anyone a game.
“They were there for the taking. The lads were positive…..they missed a few late chances, but we played well. Going into the championship, we now know what we can do.”
Brough puts the Donegal win right up there alongside the county’s two Lory Meagher Cup successes, and National League title (Div 3A). Brough has been involved in all of them.
As well as giving the squad a lift before championship, the win over Donegal was also huge for the development of hurling in the county, he says.
Warwickshire were picking from the bare-bones for much of the league, but Brough and his selectors will have some decisions to make for Longford and beyond.
They’ve added three new players to the panel (all from St Finbarrs in Coventry) and with good numbers out, there’s suddenly a very healthy competition for places. They have the freedom now to “try different things” if they so wish.
“We’ve got a bit of squad depth, so the intensity has lifted at training. Lads are fighting for positions, and that makes them want to do that bit extra. The lads are buying into it,” he said.
“For a couple of games in the league our hands were tied and that’s why we got the hiding against Kildare.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom in the league before their Donegal heroics, though.
Warwickshire weren’t too far off Derry and Down – losing by four points and eight points respectively to two sides who’ll be challenging for the Christy Ring this year.
But both of those performances came at Pairc na hEireann, and with the Exiles having to travel to Longford and Monaghan, Brough is aware that they’ll need to improve their away form if they’re to progress.
“Home advantage is massive in this competition. We’ll need to travel well, plan well and make sure we’re on point. And we’ll give anyone a good game at Pairc na hEireann,” said Brough.
“Every game is going to be a battle – they’ll only be a puck of a ball between the teams at the final whistle. It’s going to be tough.
“We need to make sure our game plan’s in place and the lads are tuned in to what we’re doing. It’s going to go to the wire.”
Recent history favours Warwickshire. They beat Longford in last year’s Nicky Rackard thanks to a late Kelvin Magee goal, and had four points to spare over Monaghan in Birmingham.
On the flip side, Longford reached the Div 3B final, only to lose out to Sligo. Armagh were relegated from the Christy Ring last year, but responded by reaching the Div 3A final.
For Brough, defeat to Longford is unthinkable, if they are to reach the last four in their bid to go one further than losing out to Donegal in last year’s Nicky Rackard final.
Victory on the otherhand would set them up nicely for the visit of Armagh to fortress Pairc na hEireann.
“You’ve got to hit the ground running. Every game is massive, but to come out of the first game with anything but a win makes the task even harder to secure your progress into the semi-finals,” he said.
“Longford are always strong; they’re a good side and we’ll have to be on point to beat them in Pearse Park. Hopefully we can start well and carry it through.
“We started well against Donegal, there was good fight in the lads and the team spirit is second to none. And fair play to them – nobody gave us a chance that day.”
After the events in Pearse Park a few weeks ago, nobody would now ever dare write Warwickshire off again.