After the historic high of climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand last Saturday afternoon and lifting the Nicky Rackard Cup, it's back to even more serious business tomorrow for the Mayo senior hurlers. Unlike the Christy Ring Cup, winning the competition does not guarantee you promotion to the next level of the senior hurling championship, so it's back on the road again for Mayo and a date with Derry in Ballinamore in Leitrim for the right to have a place in the draw for the Christy Ring Cup next season.
This time last year Mayo were in Derry's place, ending up in the play-off from the Ring side of the draw, facing a team who were fresh from success and basking in glory of winning the Rackard Cup, and Mayo came up short on a scorching day in Salthill, where Roscommon condemned them to life in the third tier this season.
Mayo captain Brian Hunt, only minutes after lifting the Rackard Cup last Saturday, was all about tomorrow's game and what it means for his side and the future of hurling in the county. “Derry next weekend, straight focus now on that, that’s the game we’ve targeted all year. We want to be back up in Christy Ring, we don’t want to be here next year, we want to be back there taking on the Meaths and the Antrims.”
Last week's man of the match, Kenny Feeney, was a equally focused on winning tomorrow, despite having just guided Mayo to a national title in Croke Park only minutes earlier when we spoke to him. "We’ve got another big test coming up again next weekend and we’ve got to get ready for that and we will. I know we wanted to win this and it was our number one aim, but we need to win next week to get back to where we belong and that’s it.”
Mayo's opponents Derry come into the game on the back of three losses in the Ring Cup, losing to Roscommon in Athleague 2-20 to 0-15 in round one, before going fellow Ulster men Down seeing them off 1-18 to 1-15 in Owenbeg, and Wicklow having 13 points to spare over them in a 2-22 to 0-15 win in Newry. Last year Derry reached the final of the Ring Cup only to be beaten by Kerry and now they find themselves fighting for their lives in the competition against a hungry Mayo side who come into the game full of confidence. The Oak Leaf County haven't won a single game this season, losing all five of their league games in division 2A and they will be dropping into division 2B next season, the division that Mayo currently operate in.
Mayo were able to call on the experience of Keith Higgins this year for the Rackard Cup, but his involvement in tomorrow's game could be in doubt. If he plays it will be the fourth weekend in a row the Ballyhaunis man has played a championship game, having lined out against Donegal and Armagh for the hurlers, and London for the footballers, and with Galway coming up next weekend in the football championship it would be five weeks of championship action on the trot for him. When asked this week about his availablity for tomorrow's game Mayo senior football manager Stephen Rochford said, "Our commitment with Keith and the hurling management is that he was available for the Nicky Rackard." When pushed on his answer and if it included the play-off game tomorrow, he gave the same answer. When asked if he saw it as problem that Keith could be facing into his fourth championship game in as many weeks, he said: "Look, Keith has had a history of injuries this year, he's played one game for us this year, so look I mean the agreement was that he would play the Nicky Rackard."
That being said, JP Coen's side have shown their ability to overcome many obstacles this year and get over other setbacks, and if Kenny Feeney can keep up his scoring rate with the workrate in the defence of Cathal Freeman, Brian Hunt, Ger McManus, they have a solid foundation for victory. While up front Darren McTigue, Shane Boland, Sean Regan and Fergal Boland have the scoring ability to get Mayo the scores they'll need. The game throws in at 3pm in Ballinamore in Leitrim tomorrow, Saturday, June 11.