There were only two choices left for the members of the Mayo senior hurling panel last year after they were sent back down to the Nicky Rackard Cup, and they chose the one that has seen them reach tomorrow's All Ireland final in Croke Park, team captain Brian Hunt told the Mayo Advertiser. "When we came back at the start of the year we had two choices, we were either going to sink further or we were going to swim. In fairness to JP [Coen] and the lads they set the targets high at the start of the year that we want to win the Nicky Rackard and go straight back up, because if you're down here for two or three years, this group might not get out of it and no one wants that.
"We had a team meeting in November time or late October, then we came back training in January and the dynamic of a the group set in early, we all bought into the fact that Croke Park is a very realistic goal for this side and we can really get there and it was a good carrot."
This will be the third time this season Mayo and the Orchard county have met in competitive action, with Armagh winning a vital league game on the way to their victory in the final of that competition, but Mayo reversed the result in an early round of this competition, Hunt knows that will count for nothing tomorrow "We're under no illusion now the next day, Armagh were missing a few when we played them in Ballina earlier this year in the Nicky Rackard round two, I think it was their captain and one of their main forwards were out. They will be dangerous on the day and it will have no bearing on what happens on Saturday. It's an All Ireland final and those games take on a life of their own and Armagh will be ready to play a part in that the next day."
As for leading the team out in Croke Park in an All Ireland final, Hunt is honoured to have that privilege, but he's not a smashing hurls against the wall kind of leader to get the guys ramped up for the game. "It will be a new experience for me, I've never played there before I'll be relishing the opportunity to do it and we'll take it just as another game and hurl it as that. The lads are well tuned in and won't be needing any rousing speeches from myself, a few quiet words here and there will do it as far as I'm concerned."
Raising the standard of the game and the interest in the game is something everyone involved with this team is very keen on doing, but Hunt knows the competition is so tight among the Nicky Rackard's top sides and the Christy Ring Cup teams you cannot take your eye off the ball for a second. "What we are looking to do is build all the time and raise the standards of hurling in Mayo, two years ago we were in a Christy Ring Cup semi-final against Kerry and one year down the line look at where both have gone. One bad year and you're done. Even look at Derry this year, they made the final of the Christy Ring last year and ended up in relegation trouble this year, that's how ruthless this competition is when you get right down to it."
Having come so close to a national final earlier this year and letting it slip when it seemed easier to reach, Hunt is looking to put a few things right this weekend with Mayo. "It was frustrating that the league final was there for us, but we just faltered against Wicklow here, and then against Armagh, but we had a lot of hard training put in at that stage and we had a few key injuries and it just took its toll on us in those games. Without your full squad you're not at 100 per cent, and it didn't go for us that day, because you want to be winning leagues and going up and competing at a higher level and testing yourself against the better teams."
As for their shaky start in the Rackard where Tyrone looked like they could inflict a surprise defeat on Mayo, they were still working the end of the league out of their system he believes. "We were under a lot of pressure in the first half and the sending off didn't help either, and we were with the wind and struggling to score and Tyrone really came at us hard in that game. We got in at half time and the boys sat us down and talked us through the plan for the second half and we came out and dug deep and we got the result, at the end of the day it was a tough game. It was a bit of a follow on from our league form, we were a bit rusty and not as sharp as we wanted to be."
As for having a speech prepared if things go to plan tomorrow, Hunt is not tempting fate "That'll be off the cuff on the day." One thing is for sure, Hunt will not leave anything behind him on the field trying to make sure he is climbing the steps of Croke Park and lifting the Nicky Rackard Cup high to the sky.