Carlow captain Paul Doyle lifts the Joe McDonagh Cup. Tom Maher/INPHO
The Step Up

Battling Dublin, Carlow rising and Leinster hurling hopes

Paul Doyle reflects on the joy of winning the Joe McDonagh Cup, and the challenge that awaits against Dublin.

WHEN CARLOW WON the inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup in 2018, they had just a six-day window to squeeze in their celebrations as well as their preparation for the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final.

carlow-celebrate-after-the-game Carlow players celebrate their 2018 Joe McDonagh triumph. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

They encountered the eventual champions Limerick on that day as their first step-up to the senior championship was stamped by a 24-point defeat. A winless run in the 2019 Leinster SHC followed before they slipped back down to the second tier.

Last month, they earned another swipe at the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals as well as a place in the top provincial competition. And this time, they were afforded a proper period to drink in their success after a rip-roaring extra-time fight with Offaly in the Joe McDonagh final. 

Now that the champagne has been returned to the cooler, their attentions will turn to a hometown tussle with Dublin this weekend.

“It’s really nice to have the week to enjoy it and just come down from the whole buzz of the weekend,” Carlow captain, and corner-back, Paul Doyle tells The 42.

“You have two weeks then to prepare as best as you can for a very tough match.

“We got back to the town square in Carlow and it was brilliant. We were delighted that it was organised for us just to give us a platform to showcase the Joe McDonagh to the people of Carlow.

“We’ve never experienced a reception like that before. It was great getting up on the back of the lorry and looking out at the crowd. I think someone let off a flare as well which just added to the whole thing.”

In the immediate aftermath of their win in Croke Park, Carlow’s man-of-the-match winner Martin Kavanagh declared the day to be “our All-Ireland final.”

That’s a description which Doyle is happy to endorse, while his teammate Chris Nolan was the perfect candidate to deliver the decisive score with the last puck in extra-time.

“Oh, he’s some man,” says a delighted Doyle, still clearly relieved by how those frantic final moments turned out. “That ball just fell into the right man’s hands. Chris is an excellent hurler. He can score off left and right.”

The three weeks since that day have passed quickly, and now Dublin are preparing to make the short journey to Netwatch Cullen Park for a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. The jump in quality will be clear to see. A side who built up a 10-point lead against Galway before eventually playing out a draw will inevitably present a tough assignment for Tom Mullally’s side on Saturday afternoon. 

And next year’s set of challenges won’t be any easier for Carlow when they return to the Leinster championship. The yo-yo bug that has infected Joe McDonagh winners of the past is always a looming threat. Carlow have been struck down by it before. However, Doyle has fond memories of their 2019 campaign, and he’s excited about the prospect of creating a home for Carlow in the top tier.

donal-burke-scores-a-point Dublin forward Donal Burke in action against Galway defender Pádraic Mannion. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s going to be a massive step up for us. We know we’re going to have to have a massive body of work done before we play those matches next year. There’s a bit of a deficit between ourselves and the other counties that are up there.

“We’re just going to have to do our best with what we have. We know we have a lot of hours to get through in terms of training, our S&C side of things, nutrition, and in terms of our hurling skills as well.”

Suggestions around whether or not Joe McDonagh winners should be allocated two years in the Leinster championship instead of one has been mooted recently. It’s hoped that such a resolution might help fix issue of teams struggling to survive against the hurling strongholds. Doyle isn’t sure if that will solve everything.

“That question has been put to me before and I just don’t know how it would look. I’d love to know how you would sort it out. You have to prove you’re good enough to be up there too. That’s what championship is about: you really have to prove that you’re good enough.

“I don’t know if a safety blanket for the Joe McDonagh team would take a bit of that away from the competition. But it would be nice to know that you would have at least one year up there trying to get up to the pace of it.”

Carlow’s opponents on Saturday evening were once in their position. There was a time, not long ago, when Dublin were struggling to make the breakthrough. A touch of progression here, and a few setbacks there has ultimately guided them to this point where they have a firm foothold in the Leinster championship. Their rise offers hope to counties like Carlow.

“The calibre of players they have is very good,” says Doyle.

“We’ll give it our best and we’re hoping for a big crowd in Carlow.

“I have great memories of 2019. We had two home games against Dublin and Kilkenny and it was great to see such crowds coming. We wouldn’t be used to that at all. We have a good fanbase here but it’s nice to see other counties coming down and supporting their teams too. That’s where you want to be.”

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