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It has taken almost ten years to get there but on Sunday Down hurlers will finally fulfil their ambition to play in Division 2A. The challenge is to stay there according to proud Down manager and Newry Shamrocks man Ronan Sheehan.

Down make the trip to Tralee on Saturday for Sunday’s game against a much-fancied Kerry, before welcoming Carlow to Ballycran on Sunday, May 16, they then face away trips to Wicklow and Offaly, before the crunch home game against Meath on Sunday, June 13.

Last season’s promotion and finalist place in the McDonagh Cup confirmed that Down had outgrown 2B, but it’s yet to be seen if they are ready for Division 2A.

“I think we took immense satisfaction to win the league last year and get promoted and, in many ways, this is the big test ahead to see if we can consolidate,” said manager Sheehan.

Down Hurling Manager, Ronan Sheehan.
Down Hurling Manager, Ronan Sheehan. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

“Probably for the past four or five years we have talked about Down hurling being in a division below where we thought we should be. But we are up here now, so I suppose the pressure is on us to prove that this is the level that we deserve to be at, and this is the level of hurlers that is within the county.

“The players and I are mindful of that and the management team are mindful that we are representing a proud hurling county and on Sunday when we pull on that red and black jersey, we will certainly be giving it everything we can to get a positive performance.”

The games are coming thick and fast and the challenge for Down hasn’t been greater in recent years. It would be fair to suggest that positive results against Wicklow and Meath should be enough to secure divisional status but first the Mourne men must take on the big guns and the Down boss doesn’t underestimate how tough it will be.

“There is a massive step up in quality,” said Sheehan.

“Carlow were playing Division One last year, where they played in Salthill and Nolan Park, but in a couple of weeks they’ll be coming to Ballycran, so that’s a huge step up.

“Kerry ran Antrim very close in the McDonagh Cup final last year and indeed in the league final as well and we know all about Offaly, we had a great day against them last year, but it is only a couple of years ago that they were playing for the McCarthy Cup and in Division One of the National Hurling League. So, it is a real step-up in quality and then we have Meath and Wicklow there as well, who are good teams.

“The quality of the opposition is at a different level to Division 2B where we would say Derry, Kildare and ourselves would have been above the other teams in that division. This year every single game is going to pose a challenge.”

Players such as Conor Woods, John McManus, brothers Eoghan and Daithi Sand, Pearse Og McCrickard and Newry’s Paul Sheehan are players that need to play on the bigger stage and while Danny Toner’s absence through injury is a massive blow, manager Sheehan has injected more youth into his squad, including Newry man Ruairi Campbell.

“We brought a couple of players in; Ruairi Campbell from Newry Shamrocks is another local lad,” said the Down manager.

“Ruairi was on the panel three or four years ago but dropped off when he was on the fringes of the football squad, but he is back with us and we are delighted about that. A couple of the under 20 are in the squad now too such as Paudie Doran, Ciaran Watson, Matt McAreavey and I am really pleased to see those young fellas come up through the ranks.

“It will be a number of months before Danny Toner is back, and he is a big loss. And it is unfortunate that after all the service he has given that he will miss out on playing Division 2A.”

Down’s first game is against Kerry in Austin Stack Park on Sunday, May 9, at 1pm. They travel on Saturday to stay overnight in Tralee, while following the covid guidelines, which includes wearing facemasks while on the buses and players not sharing rooms.

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