Joe McDonagh Cup Preview-Carlow to rise once more

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So just say, for example, you were an occasional fan of the GAA. Just suppose you were the kind of guy or gal who watched the All-Ireland hurling final in September and didn’t watch another game until the summer of the following year. Just suppose you were the kind of person who knew there was such a thing as the Christy Ring Cup but didn’t really know what it entailed. Say you hadn’t been keeping up to date with any developments that were made in GAA congress or hurling championships. Would you have any idea what the format of the secondary hurling competition would be in the GAA this year? No. Not a hope in hell. Well here’s my chance to explain it to you.

The best way to think about in terms of the Christy Ring Cup this year is that, well… it isn’t really the Christy Ring Cup at all. The Christy Ring cup was the secondary hurling competition that ran for 2005-2017 dominated by the likes of Westmeath and Carlow. Its final was played in July in Croke Park and the winners of the competition’s season was effectively over, bar playing in a play off against the bottom team in the All-Ireland championship, from then on.

But now, what was the Christy Ring Cup has undergone a dramatic rebranding. Just like the way the old Division 1 became the Premier league, and then the new Division 1 became the championship, there’s a whole new way of imagining the secondary hurling competition and that’s the Joe McDonagh Cup. Now Joe McDonagh was president of the GAA from 1997 to 2000. He was on the Galway hurling team that broke a 57 year hoodoo by winning an All-Ireland title in 1980. He was a legendary gael and after dying from a short illness in 2016 the GAA felt it would be fitting to name a competition after him in his honour. So the Joe McDonagh cup is it.

Now the Christy Ring Cup hasn’t actually gone away. It’s just that now, the Christy Ring Cup is the third tier competition rather than the second. So eight teams will face off in the competition this year: Kildare, Roscommon, Wicklow, Mayo, Derry, Down, Armagh and London. The final will be played in the middle of June in Croke Park and following that, the winner will face off against the bottom team in the Joe McDonagh cup to see who will play in the second tier in 2019.

But the new secondary tier is called the Joe McDonagh Cup and features six teams: Carlow, Kerry, Westmeath, Meath, Laois and Antrim. All teams, with the exception of Laois, have previously won the Christy Ring Cup. And it looks to be a competitive division. Certainly there’s reasons to expect a lot of close games there. The games will be played off over the course of 6 weeks from this weekend (May 5th) to the final round on June 9th. After that the top two teams in the division will face off in the final in Croke Park on July 1st. And, as an extra quirk, both finalists will get a chance to enter the All-Ireland hurling championship proper if they can beat either the third placed Munster or Leinster championship team in a playoff on July 8th. And the winner also has the chance to be promoted to the All-Ireland senior hurling championship for next year, instead of either the last placed team in Munster or Leinster.

So it’s a complex enough system and one that takes a bit of getting used to. But it was nothing if worth trying. The likes of Laois and Westmeath would have felt a bit hard done by to be demoted from the senior hurling championship proper, but given the amount of quality games and the possibility, albeit slightly remote, of qualifying for the All-Ireland hurling championship, they would feel there’s a lot to be gleaned from this competition. At the very least, it’s worth giving a championship like this a shot.

But therein lies the question: who is actually going to win this thing. Formlines are difficult to draw, and can be misleading, but it’s probably best to use the most recent National hurling league and All-Ireland/Christy Ring Cup from last year as our guide. Within that, maybe Laois are the top pick. Certainly, they’re the only team that played in Division 1B this year, that will still be in 1B next year. So by that, admittedly crude rationale, they’ve a right to fancy their chances of prevailing.

On saying that, Antrim have genuine cause to believe they could win silverware come July 1st. The glensmen had a league campaign that ended on an excruciatingly disappointing relegation on the last day against Laois on their home turf of Ballycastle, but there was more than enough to suggest they were capable of holding their own in the division until then. Certainly, they pulled off a massive shock victory against Offaly away from home, while their performances against Dublin at home and Galway away were very encouraging.

Taking a dip into tier 2, Kerry would have been a little bit disappointed by their league campaign. They were convincing in their three victories but lost out against Westmeath and Carlow to end any prospect of them reaching a promotion final. Meath look like the weakest team in the group and the one most likely to face the drop to the now third tier of the Christy Ring Cup. They managed just two victories in the league and finished bottom of the Leinster championship qualifiers last year.

Westmeath demonstrated great form in the League proper by registering wins from all of their 5 regulation division games. Unfortunately the Laker men flopped badly in the Division 2 final against Carlow at Croke Park. How much can be read into that non-performance is debatable. Westmeath did perform admirably in the championship last year, running Offaly and Tipperary close, and their league form was very consistent until that bizarre last no-show.

And then we come to Carlow. After being overturned in their initial league fixture against Westmeath at Netwatch Dr Cullen Park, the Barrow siders may have had cause to be concerned about the trajectory they were on, but things perked up considerably after that and their victory over Westmeath in the divisional final was a stunning one. They also have the taste of success from last year’s Christy Ring Cup to burnish them with any extra confidence they may need. It’s been a boon time for GAA in the county with the footballers finally winning promotion from Division 4 after 30 years. Maybe the hurlers can continue that wave of success.

It’s a minefield trying to predict winners in such competitions as this as the teams are so closely clustered together. But given their recent travails in the league, Meath look like they can be discounted and it’s hard to make an argument for Kerry either. All of the other 4 teams will fancy their chances strongly. If Antrim can show the form of their opening 5 league games there’s reason to suggest they will able to do it, and Westmeath are in a similar position. But how much will that no show in the league final affect them?

On the other hand, Carlow and Laois both ended the league on a high and that confidence may be enough to see them through to a final on the 1st of July. Then again picking a winner in this competition is akin to plucking one from the Grand National, so don’t race down to the bookies on my behest. The games start this Sunday so make sure to keep an eye out for them.

JOE MCDONAGH CUP FIXTURES MAY 5TH

Meath v Antrim, 3.00 pm, Pairc Tailteann, Navan

Laois v Westmeath, 3.00 pm, O’Moore Park, Portlaoise

Carlow v Kerry, 2.00 pm, Netwatch Dr Cullen Park, Carlow

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