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Armagh step up the quest for Ulster and Rackard success

By Declan Bogue

Preserving a tag of 'second-best' team in Ulster is of no interest to Sylvester McConnell as he prepares to guide Armagh to their second consecutive Ulster senior hurling final.

However, the pursuit of the Liam Harvey Cup isn't something they will pin all their hopes on with a Nicky Rackard Cup opener against Donegal looming on April 22.

Under Middletown man McConnell, a roofer by day, they have reached the last two Rackard finals only to be beaten in particularly cruel fashion by Roscommon in 2015 and Mayo last year.

"You can't judge where you are in a state of Ulster," argues McConnell.

"The Ulster thing, 'are you better than Down, are you better than Derry?', I mean Slaughtneil proved that Derry can be as strong as anyone in Ulster.

"So we kind of look at the bigger picture, at the teams that are around us and around our level," he added.

In the Monaghan hurling heartland of Inniskeen, Armagh will face neighbours Down for the right to join the winners of the other semi-final between Antrim - who are going for 16 in a row - and Donegal.

Armagh competed in a league above Down this year, having beaten them in the Division 2B hurling league final of 2016. They also accounted for them in the Ulster semi-final so Marty Mallon, boss of the Ardsmen, who haven't won the province since 1997, is remaining realistic.

"It is the third tier of the competitions that we are interested in. That's just the way it is," says McConnell candidly.

"But no lad would refuse a winners' medal, Antrim lads have now won a few in a row and it might not mean that much to them, but for Armagh, Down and Derry, not many of them have medals in their back pocket.

"So we will not be putting out a dud team. The competition we have with Down over the past couple of years, they did not take those two beatings they got off us last year well at all. They will come back fighting and we are looking forward to that."

In his third year in charge, the dedication of inter-county hurlers further down the food chain continues to impress McConnell, who by chance spotted one of his key players, Cahal Carvill, exiting a gym the other evening for an unscheduled session.

"All these lads like to keep themselves in good shape. They are not wrecking and tearing about. They look to prepare themselves properly, they eat properly, so they are not that far off the level of the higher level," he explained.

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