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Red Hands are hoping to break more new ground

By Declan Bogue

Three weeks ago, Tyrone travelled to Roscommon, Athleague to be precise, in exactly the sort of hurling fixture that non-believers would have considered a drain on resources.

Having played in Division 3B this year against Sligo, Leitrim and Warwickshire, Mattie Lennon's men hadn't exactly the most taxing of times in sealing promotion.

By virtue of winning the Lory Meagher Cup in 2012, they faced into the Nicky Rackard Cup not knowing exactly where they were at. Their first game was against Sligo, but when the two teams met in the league, it was a dead-rubber match with Sligo nothing left to play for.

"Compared to the Rackard standard, it isn't up to scratch," says Tyrone captain Damian Casey.

The 20-year Eoghan Ruadh clubman is the dead-ball specialist for Tyrone, racking up a total of 0-21 in the two games against Sligo and Roscommon to get this far.

He explains: "We played Sligo in the first round of the Rackard and there was a level of expectation upon us that we would win. We knew ourselves that the team Sligo put out in the league would bear no real resemblance to the team we would play in the Rackard.

"We had home advantage, but Sligo took us to extra-time. It was a good, hard, tight game and proved good preparation for us going into the Roscommon game. Our fitness showed and in extra-time we pulled away."

Going to Roscommon, some bookmakers priced Tyrone as long as 13/1 to get through. But within the camp, the Accountancy student maintains that getting this far was one of their private goals.

"Our first goal this year was to win our first league game," he said. "After that it was to go on and get promotion.

"After that it was to go onto the Nicky Rackard. Obviously we got promoted and then the Nicky Rackard, well, there wasn't many that expected us to beat Roscommon bar ourselves. We knew what we had done, what effort we had put in." Last year, Donegal and Roscommon contested the Rackard final, and with both teams having home advantage for the semi-finals – Donegal meeting Fingal in Letterkenny – a repeat of 2013 was on the cards.

Casey recalled: "Nobody gave us a chance and that probably helped us. We weren't expected to do anything and Donegal and Roscommon were the two teams that were expected to reach the final.

"So we went into it not over-confident, but confident in our own ability and it was enough to get us over the line."

Not only did they get over the line, but they did it in commanding fashion, winning by 2-20 to 0-18.

In overcoming a half-time deficit of 0-12 to 0-8, two goals inside a minute from Gerard Gilmore and Seán Óg Grogan transformed the complexion of the game.

Casey landed 0-8, four points from frees, but plays down his own individual contribution.

"It's the same for everybody, I am the one who hits the frees and gets some scores, but it is a team effort and the players around me are winning the frees," he said.

Competing and thriving in the Rackard Cup is the latest step in a wider raising of expectations with Tyrone hurling.

"The better standard of teams you face, the more your own standard will rise," he adds.

In the curtain-raiser for Saturday's finals, Fermanagh face Longford in the Lory Meagher decider.

TYRONE (v Fingal, Nicky Rackard final): J Devlin; C McNally, R Devlin, M O'Gorman; M Grogan, S Donnelly, A Kelly; M Winters, G Fox; C Grogan, T Morgan, C Cross; M Mulgrew, D Casey (Capt), G Gilmore.

Belfast Telegraph

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