By Larry Cooney
Warwickshire’s hurlers make their return to the Nicky Rackard Cup with a trip to Dowdallshill, Dundalk, this Saturday to take on Louth.
But while much of the competition will be a journey into the unknown for manager Tony Joyce and his charges, they will also be back in familiar surroundings when they open their assault on the Nicky Rackard.
The experience of the Exiles’ previous visit to Louth, when they forced a very notable draw earlier this year in the league after finishing with 14-men, means they know they are more than capable of repeating their recent result in Trim when they claimed the Division 3A title against the Wee County.
Again Louth pushed Warwickshire all the way that sunny afternoon in Co. Meath, but when the serious questions were asked of this impressive and improving Warwickshire team they responded admirably.
Warwickshire’s unbeaten run in their league campaign should therefore set them up nicely for the Nicky Rackard, but that has not stopped the team putting in some serious training sessions, three times weekly, ahead of this Saturday’s opener.
Nobody knows it better than Warwickshire’s manager that league and championship form can differ significantly, and he knows his team will have to be at their very best if they have a serious chance of returning to Croke Park on June 23. The scene of their Lory Meagher Cup triumph last year.
— Official Warwickshire GAA (@warwickshireclg) May 9, 2018
“The training has gone well since the league final and the attendance has always been very good despite the distances some of these boys have to travel,” Joyce told the Irish World.
“The spirit is great in the squad and a winning mentality always helps to gel and galvanise a team, which is what we need ahead of this trip to Darver.
“It will be tough but we are prepared and I have a full squad to draw from and the addition of a top class goalkeeper in Philip Crean has meant that Conor Robins is now another outfield option.
“Conor was magnificent against Louth and brought off a number of outstanding saves that day in Trim.”
On the back of their league success, and winning the Lory Meagher last year, Joyce is confident in his side’s ability to progress in the competition, and hopes London and Lancashire can do the same, as the trio prepare to fly the flag for hurling in Britain.
“It would be great if all three Exiles teams were contesting their finals in Croke Park, and that is my firm belief that we make it to the final,” he said.
“But there is some formidable opposition ahead notably Donegal and Tyrone who are both previous winners. Donegal are also a Division 2B team and competed well in the league with some notable results and are proven tough opposition in the knock-out stages.”
The form of Warwickshire’s top scorer Niall McKenna will once again be crucial to the Exiles success.
The Antrim man had a number of man-of-the-match performances in the league campaign and if he maintains this kind of form going into the championship then Warwickshire are sure to be among the leading contenders.
But it was centre back Paul Hoban who really shone in the closing stages of the league campaign, and especially in the decider in Trim.
The Loughrea native is also well supported by Cork duo John Collins and Michael O’Regan, Peadar Scally and team captain Donncha Kennedy, who bring real quality to the table.
Elsewhere Hoban’s fellow Tribesmen Paul Uniacke and Shane Caulfield are also outstanding performers when they strike form.
Westmeath man Peadar Scally is another newcomer this year who could make a real impact in the forthcoming championship campaign.
An underage Westmeath star from the Clonkill club Peadar did not get an opportunity to shine in the closing stages of the league, but there is no doubt he will be one player who will be chomping at the bit if he gets a start in Darver this Saturday.
A winning start on Saturday, with a home fixture against Monaghan to follow in Round 2, would set Warwickshire up well for a third round clash in Longford.
But none of their opposition can be taken for granted in a four-team Group 1 that looks equally as competitive as the three-team Group 2, which includes previous winners Donegal and Tyrone and last year’s defeated Lory Meagher Cup finalists Leitrim.
Warwickshire have every reason to be optimistic about progressing to at least the knock-out stages and should they top Group 1 then it is quite likely that Tyrone will be their opponents in the semi-finals.
Tyrone and Donegal face off in the opening round of Group 2 this Saturday in Omagh with Donegal hosting Leitrim the following week. But Tyrone will also have to travel to Carrick-on-Shannon in the final round.
Warwickshire’s hopes of reaching Croke Park are therefore very much dependant on the Northern challenge they face from Monaghan and either Donegal or Tyrone, or quite possibly both.
But before looking too far ahead, all emphasis will be on Darver and hoping for the best possible start to their championship campaign similar to their league campaign in Dungannon earlier this year. Longford on their day in Glennon Bros. Pearse Park can also be a formidable force.
But if Warwickshire’s competitive training sessions are any indication of where the team is at then the signs are good that they could be set for another long summer of championship hurling.
They have had just over a month to get over the success of winning the Division 3A title at their first attempt, and that winning feeling has certainly gelled the squad into a formidable force. There is certainly no shortage of ability in the current Warwickshire line-up.
Although a strong northern challenge awaits, the Exiles are well prepared to deal with it at the semi-final and final stage, and what better way to motivate a team than the prospect of a return to Croke Park on June 23.