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Resurgent Down put to the test in Derry clash

By John Campbell

The state of health of hurling in Antrim is normally taken as a barometer of the overall welfare of the sport in Ulster as a whole.

If this formula were to be applied today, then there would be cause for weeping and gnashing of teeth.

After all, the Saffrons made a tame exit from the Leinster Championship at the hands of a modest Laois side and then toppled out of the All-Ireland qualifiers last Saturday to a limited Wexford outfit.

So it's all a case of gloom and doom then, is it? Not according to Down manager Gerard Monan and his ebullient coach Paul Flynn. Antrim may be engulfed in self-pity and recriminations but at this point in time it's sunshine all the way in Down.

The Christy Ring Cup has been captured and now sights are focussed strongly on the Ulster title.

A decade-and-a-half has elapsed since the provincial crown last rested in the county but the peninsula men believe to a man that the time is right to end the famine.

And when their side confronts Derry in the Ulster semi-final on Sunday, both Monan and Flynn will scan the match for signs that a breakthrough is imminent.

"While it was terrific to win the Christy Ring Cup, I would dearly love to see us land an Ulster crown," states Monan. "I feel that this Down team has matured and has acquired a winning habit."

Monan's patience and forbearance is certainly paying dividends. Fintan Conway, Conor Woods and Michael Ennis now form a dynamic half-back line, Paul Braniff's thirst for scores is perhaps greater than ever, Gareth 'Magic' Johnson is producing his own level of wizardry and James Coyle is emerging as a potent finisher.

But while Down's enhanced resources suggest that more success could be on the way, Derry are not exactly their impoverished country cousins.

Ger Rogan's team may have been unable to find the level of consistency he would have liked but in Alan Grant, Michael Warnock, Ruairi McCloskey, Sean Farren, Oisin McCloskey, Brendan Rodgers and the experienced Liam Hinphey, he feels he has players well capable of taking the Oak Leaf challenge to Down.

"We are essentially a young side but the players are gaining in experience. The Championship provides them with a platform to show what they can do and we are certainly up for this meeting," insists former Antrim ace Rogan.

Down's handsome win over Armagh (3-20 to 1-11) in the quarter-final sends them into this Sunday's shoot-out in confident mood.

"There's no chance that we will be losing the run of ourselves. Derry are a good side and they will be keen to get to the final," points out Monan.

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