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Would an all-Ulster team entering the Liam MacCarthy Cup work?

Former Cork goalkeeper and Clare coach Donal Óg Cusack insists it’s the way forward but a prominent Ulster hurling official disagrees.

Donal Óg Cusack has floated the idea of 'Team Ulster'
Donal Óg Cusack has floated the idea of 'Team Ulster'
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

ULSTER HURLING DEVELOPMENT manager Jimmy Darragh feels that the prospect of an representative provincial team ever competing in the Liam MacCarthy Cup is a complete non-runner.

With the 2017 Ulster SHC semi-finals played over the weekend, and the final between Armagh and Antrim fixed for next Sunday, Darragh has doubts as to whether a combined provincial team could help raise the standard and profile of the game in the north.

In 1989, the Antrim hurlers contested an All-Ireland final, having been extremely competitive in the years leading up to that. Down also made a real impression for a few seasons. They ran Cork close in the 1992 All-Ireland semi-final and defeated Kilkenny in the following year’s NHL.

But the fate of both teams, Derry and other Ulster counties has dipped dramatically in recent times.

Antrim’s loss to Meath in the Christy Ring final last year means that for a second year running, the county will not be participating in the Liam MacCarthy race in 2017.

Last year, they failed to move into contention for promotion from Division 2A but did beat Carlow in the recent group final, providing evidence of solid work under the guidance of manager Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton.

Meanwhile, Armagh and Down contested last year’s Division 2B final, with the Orchard County prevailing by two points.

Simon McCrory lifts the trophy Antrim skipper Simon McCrory with the Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A trophy. Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

The consensus from the outside is that hurling is suffering more in Ulster than it ever has.

In recent years, Donal Óg Cusack, the former Sunday Game analyst, spoke about the need to create an all-Ulster senior team, saying: “There’s nothing I’ve seen since we raised this a couple of years ago that tells me it’s not the way forward.

My motivation, and a lot of people would believe in the same thing as me, is that every kid and every player should have the opportunity to play at the highest level. The reality for a lot of hurlers in Ulster is that they’ll never get the opportunity to play at the highest level in their sport. This would be one way of sorting it.

With the Ulster SHC final having no bearing on the All-Ireland race, and with Ulster counties struggling to reach acceptable levels, Cusack’s calls for ‘Team Ulster’ have been echoed by many – mostly from outside of Ulster.

Terence Sambo McNaughton Antrim manager Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton. Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

Darragh, the province’s head of hurling, however, dismissed the idea as a non-runner.

“The reality is that there is too much pride in the hurling communities of Down, Derry, Antrim and so on for them to come together as a collective,” he said.

That’s my own personal view from working at the coalface of Ulster hurling. I think if you asked all the counties there would be a definite ‘no’ to any proposed move.

“Geographically, it could not happen anyway – the logistics of players from one end of Ulster driving to another for training would make any cohesion impossible. A central location would be hard to find, there would massive cost implications attached and it just wouldn’t work.

An Antrim flag in the crowd Antrim are aiming for a 16th Ulster SHC title in a row next weekend - but won't be competing for the Liam MacCarthy Cup this year. Source: James Crombie

“The notion might look good on paper but the reality is there are too many obstacles to overcome.

“I think that access to good quality coaches and games is what everyone here is crying out for. The distance factor in our teams getting good games is a significant one too.

“There are distinct levels of hurling within Ulster, probably three tiers, and the coaching resources are not as strong here as elsewhere. We have decent club coaches but we don’t seem to be able to make the step up to intercounty level.”

But Darragh feels that the Celtic Challenge tournament, which started in Ulster two weeks ago, is a step in the right direction, however, and feels the competition could be a huge boost for counties in the province as it grows over the coming years.

Danny Magee and Andrew Bell Armagh and Down battle it out in last year's Ulster SHC semi-final. Source: Presseye/Philip Magowan/INPHO

The Under-17 national hurling tournament, which began on March 19th in Ulster, gives northern teams a chance to play games on a regular basis at a desirable juncture in the Gaelic Games calendar.

Crucially, all of those games are at a comparative level for teams.

Colm Melaugh and Odhran McFadden Antrim and Donegal contested last year's Ulster semi-final. Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

“Well, we have already put a lot of work in to bring the competition to the level its at here and the hope is that this tournament will bring teams and players together now, they will learn, the coaches will learn and they will have regular matches,” Darragh says.

Last year the buy-in could have been better from the counties. But the good thing is that it’s already better this year. That is because the Celtic Challenge is a fine idea, a good tournament and I see a lot of benefits coming out of it.

Those benefits can be felt by all counties here and it puts a focus on hurling in a province where Gaelic football is still the main attraction in most places.

“I expect the Celtic Challenge to grow year on year and I honestly feel that we have already improved on last year’s efforts,” the hurling chief adds. “There will still be issues in games – with one team winning well – but this is a work-in-progress for Under 17 teams and they are getting competitive games. That is all they want.”

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Damian Lawlor

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