Lesser lights dreaming of Croker

The Christy Ring Cup gets underway today as counties dream of reaching the big stage

It was born under the stewardship of a Kerryman, a competition designed to promote hurling in lower-tier counties and named after a Corkman who was one of the most decorated players in the history of the game.

The Christy Ring Cup took flight in 2005 when Sean Kelly was in the GAA hot seat and Westmeath’s John Shaw had the honour of lifting the silverware in the first year after the Midlanders won a thrilling final by 1-23 to 2-18 against Down. Any reflections ahead of the commencement of the eighth Christy Ring Cup production this afternoon must account for the value it has given to hurling in unfashionable parts.

The prizes of playing a big game in Croke Park and claiming silverware are both tangible. Yet has it done anything to bridge the gap to those elite forces operating in the Liam MacCarthy Cup? Westmeath have been the trail-blazers, winning Christy Ring Cup titles in 2005, 2007 and 2010. Yet while Westmeath hurling was boosted by Raharney’s 2010 Leinster Club SHC success over this year’s All-Ireland finalists Coolderry and the Lake County ran Galway close last summer, substantial progress has been difficult to achieve. Apart from 2006 victors Antrim proceeding to dump Dublin out in the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2010, building on a Christy Ring Cup win has proved arduous.

Last summer’s champions Kerry face the dilemma of judging whether they are ready for the step up to Munster senior championship level.

“We see this year’s Christy Ring as a big step to prepare for the Munster championship,” said manager John Meyler.

“It’s good to test the young fellas. The Munster SHC is fierce right now and we need to make sure that we are as good as we possibly can be before taking that step. That’s why the Christy Ring is so important, as an indicator of where we are at.”

Up north, they face the challenges of trying to regain competitiveness. In 2000, Derry gave Offaly a rigorous contest in the All-Ireland quarter-final but 12 years on, they have slipped back considerably.

“I have said all along that this is about raising the level they are playing at,” outlined coach Ger Rogan. “This has always been about stepping up the intensity. I want them to learn to play at a higher intensity than they have played before.”

His Down counterpart Gerard Monan is also hopeful despite a season where they have already got relegated from Division 2A.

“To be honest, teams will probably be looking to play Down this year after we got relegated. They might look at us an easier match. But we have targeted the Christy Ring Cup from the start of the year, and that hasn’t changed.”

Attempting to move up the pecking order and start challenging the elite is difficult yet here is still an optimistic air about this season’s competition. New boys London, graduates from the Nicky Rackard Cup where they plied their trade last season are set for a bout with Meath tomorrow afternoon. The team was rocked by the loss of last year’s captain Niall Forde, who has returned home to Galway following the recent tragic death of his brother Cathal.

But Lee Mackey, who has a wealth of experience at various levels with Tipperary, is a fine addition in defence while sharpshooter Martin Finn is also back in the frame.

“We’ve done as much as we can at this stage so we’ve no complaints,” said manager Eamonn Phelan.

“The motivation here will come from just wanting to go as far as we can in this. We’ll give it a lash over the next six weeks and try to go the whole way. We expect to go over there on Sunday and win. We’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”

And in Mayo, they are borrowing from their football brethren as they seek hurling progress. Captain and midfield star for today’s opening clash with Down in Elverys MacHale Park is Keith Higgins, the Ballyhaunis man who was corner-back for the county senior footballers that lost the Allianz Football League Division 1 decider to Cork last weekend.

He’s in good company in the dual star stakes. Wing-forward Cathal Freeman struck 0-4 in the drawn 2008 All-Ireland MFC final and was joined on the team that faced Tyrone that day by current hurling corner-forward Ciarán Charlton.


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