By Damian Dolan
The Warwickshire County Board proposed McGovern Park in Ruislip to the GAA as a suitable neutral venue for their Nicky Rackard Cup semi-final with Tyrone.
The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) confirmed on Tuesday (5 June) that Warwickshire will instead go to Dowdallshill in Louth for their Nicky Rackard showdown with the Red Hand.
Warwickshire, and London, had been informed on Saturday by Croke Park that their respective Nicky Rackard and Christy Ring semi-finals would take place at neutral venues this weekend.
Warwickshire and London both topped their respective groups last weekend, and had assumed they would be at home.
Previously, group winners were awarded home advantage in the semi-finals, but a motion carried at Congress in March gave the CCCC power over the choice of venues for all semi-finals.
Motion 35 was put forward by the Gaelic Players Association and carried by 62 percent.
Warwickshire hurling manager Tony Joyce says he’s happy to “take anybody on, anywhere” but his preference is Ruislip.
But with both counties having travelled to Ireland last weekend for their Round 3 matches, any decision to fix the semi-finals for a neutral venue in Ireland would leave Joyce questioning the benefit of winning the group.
“Maybe for once a neutral venue can be in the UK. We put it to the GAA. If it’s a neutral venue what about Ruislip? Joyce told the Irish World prior to the CCCC’s venue confirmation.
“Our success this year has been a positive for everyone and we’ve worked so hard on the training pitch and to promote British GAA.”
— the Irish World (@theirishworld) June 2, 2018
However, with Warwickshire only 70 minutes away from a return to Croke Park, the scene of last year’s Lory Meagher Cup triumph, Joyce will take his team anywhere the CCCC determines in order to reach Croker again.
“As a manager, on the run we’re on (15 matches unbeaten), I’m happy enough to play them in Carrickmore on their home pitch – no problem,” he said.
“But we’re close to achieving something great and a wee bit of support over the water would be gratefully received.
“Because of the Bank Holiday in Ireland we’re going to find out the venue three days before we might have to fly. That’s the only detriment I would be worried about. But we’ll play anybody, anywhere.”
Fergus McMahon’s London hammered Armagh to pip Derry and Down to top spot in Group 2 of the Christy Ring on points difference. London face Wicklow in their semi-final.
Warwickshire wrapped up top spot in Group 1 of the Nicky Rackard by beating Longford to extend their unbeaten run to 15 matches, and are now just 70 minutes away from back-to-back Croke Park appearances.
“If we get there two years in a row the achievement will be unreal. It would be magic,” said Joyce, whose side has already enjoyed success this year by winning NHL Division 3A.
“We’re over the moon to be up at this level and to be one game away from Croke Park. All we said at the start of the year was that we stay in the Division (3A) and we stay in the Nicky Rackard.
“Well, we’ve won the league and we’re in a Nicky Rackard semi-final, and we’ve a shot at nothing against Tyrone.
“Be it [the semi-final] in Cork, Birmingham, London or Tyrone, we’ll go full of confidence to try and get to Croker for a second year in a row.
“Lower level hurling is fantastic. You win two or three matches and you’re in Croke Park in front of 10,000 people. For these lads it’s amazing.
“They loved it last year [winning the Lory Meagher] and they’ve come on board again this year. I can’t fault them.”
Warwickshire and Tyrone have recent history. When the sides met in the league in January at O’Neill Park, Dungannon, the Exiles won by five points, having led by 16 at one stage.
Niall McKenna scored 0-9 for the Exiles and Ian Dwyer netted two goals with Paul Uniacke outstanding. Tyrone dangerman Damien Casey replied with 0-8 for the Red Hand.
“We got a bit of an injury to wing back Peadar Scally and we were at sixes and sevens for five minutes, and they scored two goals in that period which brought them back into the game before half-time. We got to grips with it in the second half,” said Joyce.
Prior to that, the sides met in Division 3A in 2016 when Tyrone came out on top by 0-17 to 1-12 at Healy Park.
Joyce added: “We’ve nothing to fear from them, but they can be good on their day. It’s 50:50 going into the game. Donegal and Monaghan will be the same, so it’s two good semi-finals.”
Victory over Longford took the Exiles’ unbeaten run to 15 matches – a run stretching back to their Division 3B league final defeat to Longford in April 2017. They’ll need to extend it to 17 if they’re going to win the Nicky Rackard.
“During games when you’re down I’m on the sideline thinking ‘we’ll be ok’,” said Joyce, whose side have developed a “no fear” attitude and a tendency to finish games strongly.
“They’re all good hurlers, but during the run it’s been about trying to keep the same bunch of lads together. It makes a big difference to their mentality.
“They know they’re making history by going 15 unbeaten and they’re hungry to keep it going.
“Most of them had never been to Croke Park [before last year]. The lure of Croke Park really drives them on, not keeping the unbeaten run going. But at the same time they don’t want to give it up. When we come under pressure they dig deep.”
Icing on the cake
For Joyce, to go on and win the Nicky Rackard would be the “icing on the cake” in just how far Warwickshire hurling has come. In 2016 they lost all five of their league games.
He added: “When you keep winning, everyone wants to beat you. Teams fight twice as hard. So it does come with an added pressure. Every team wants to be the first to beat you.
“But I’m happy; I’d rather have a winning run than a losing one. We just want to keep it going. It’ll come to an end one day, but hopefully not next weekend.”