By Damian Dolan
Warwickshire must utilise Pairc na hEirenan to its fullest if the Exiles are to survive in Division 2B, says new manager Chris Brough.
Warwickshire, who won Div 3A last year, open their league campaign against Wicklow in Birmingham on Saturday (2pm). The Garden County reached last year’s Christy Ring semi-finals.
Down and Derry will also make the trip to Pairc na hEireann, while the Exiles must travel to Kildare and Donegal. If they are to survive, picking up points at home is vital.
“Home advantage is going to be key,” Brough told the Irish World. “We’ve got to look to maximum our performances and points in the three homes games. Donegal and Kildare will be tough places to go.
“We’ve got a good chance of upsetting anyone at home.”
And Brough should know having been part of the Warwickshire team which in 2006 came close to stunning Derry in Birmingham – Derry escaping with a two-point victory (2-17 to 3-12)
Preparations, though, for the county’s step up to Div 2B have been far from ideal. Brough was only appointed Warwickshire’s new manager earlier this month following Tony Joyce’s surprise departure.
As a consequence, the team only got back out on the pitch on 8 January and will have had just eight sessions together by the time Wicklow arrive. A number that’s “nowhere near enough” admits Brough.
In contrast, Wicklow will run out at Pairc na hEireann with three competitive games (albeit three losses) in the Kehoe Cup under their belt.
“We’ve got work to do; we have started late and we are a bit behind. But the lads are putting in a series effort to try and bridge the gap,” said Brough.
“It’s the highest level we’ve been in. We know the challenges that are ahead, but we’ll embrace it.”
With that in mind, the depth of the panel at Warwickshire’s disposal will be crucial says Brough.
He added: “There’s good numbers at training and the lads are keen and eager to get out there. It will be a case of using all the players early on to get through the first couple of games, but hopefully those matches will bring our fitness up and we can build up some momentum.”
The challenge presented by Division 2B is indeed a big one. Kildare are reigning Christy Ring champions, Derry reached the last four of Christy Ring and Down only missed out on reaching last year’s Christy Ring semi-finals on points difference. Donegal beat Warwickshire in the final of the Nicky Rackard.
Brough conceded that it all amounts to a “baptism of fire” for him, and that it will be “an achievement” if Warwickshire are able to stay in the division.
Aside from Joyce, they’re also preparing for life without Donal Nugent, Paul Hoban, Shane Caulfield and Niall McKenna.
McKenna, in particular, was a key component of the side’s Div 3A success last year and the team going on to reach the Nicky Rackard final.
But Brough believes the league can “catapult” Warwickshire in to the championship. Ultimately, May and the start of the Nicky Rackard is the goal.
“The lads are aware, they know where we’re at. But the players who’ve come in will fill those gaps. It is going to be a challenge, but it’s one we’re looking forward to,” said Brough.
“We’ll give it our best shot.”
And Pairc na hEireann has its part to play in that, for the 35-year-old who has been involved in the Warwickshire setup for 15 years, first as a player and then as a trainer.
Fermanagh-born, Birmingham has been home for Brough since he was two. He came through the underage at John Mitchels.
He represented the county team at Feile before progressing to senior and was in the team in 2005 when Warwickshire were part of the inaugural Nicky Rackard competition.
The following year they enjoyed their first win, beating Monaghan 1-11 to 0-9.
“We celebrated that night like we’d won the league,” recalls Brough.
He has captained his county and skippered Mitchels to an All-Britain title. There’s isn’t too much Brough doesn’t know about hurling in Warwickshire.
There’ll be no prouder man at Pairc na hEireann on Saturday than new manager Brough, when his team run out on the pitch.
“When I look back it’s been quite a journey – from where we started, it’s crazy,” he said.
When the county team started, Brough recalls it was 14 John Mitchels men and one lad from Sean McDermotts. How times have changed.
“Now, we’re bringing lads on from Barnabas, Finbarrs, Casements and Mitchels. It’s good; it brings the county on,” he said.
“I remember playing against a Mayo team at Pairc na hEireann and we didn’t even have kit – we had polo shirts. I’ve seen it come all the way round.”
Division 2B now awaits and while the challenge is huge, Warwickshire have always found a way in the past.