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Ulster banishing fears of Parnell Park pain

By John Campbell

It's not often that a manager in any code expresses a willingness to embrace a challenge away from home.

But Ulster hurling boss Gregory O'Kane is the exception to this rule.

The former Antrim ace, whose side will meet Leinster in the inter-provincial championship semi-final on Sunday, has no qualms about sending his team into battle at Parnell Park, Dublin.

"This has been a relatively kind venue to various Ulster sides in both football and hurling and although we might not have had all the preparation for this match that we would have liked we have no fears about going there," reveals O'Kane.

With the Kehoe Cup and Walsh Shield competitions having just been completed, O'Kane has had only limited access to the players he has named in his squad.

Yet he believes that their fitness levels, skills and approach are "first-class" for a match in which the side will be red-hot underdogs.

"Most of the boys in the squad have been playing steadily since the start of the year and are in good shape. I have no worries on that score, these boys have a first-lass attitude," points out O'Kane.

Down centre-half-back Conor Woods will captain a side that will include Neil McManus, Simon McCrory, Neil McAuley and Paul Shiels. But O'Kane is forced to lament the absence of the injured Gareth 'Magic' Johnston and Aaron Graffin.

"Magic was hurt playing for Down against Kildare last week-end while Aaron has his hand in plaster," says O'Kane.

"They are two quality players and I would like to have them on board but it's not to be."

The Leinster team will be backboned by players from Kilkenny, Dublin and Wexford and O'Kane admits that his side faces an "enormous challenge".

"There's no point in thinking that this is anything other than an enormous challenge but at the same time it is worth pointing out that these players love donning the Ulster jersey," states O'Kane. "They take great pride in representing their province and they will be going flat out to give a good account of themselves.

"They will be coming up against some of the best players in the country but they won't be fazed by this challenge simply because they have belief in their own ability."

Nor is O'Kane the first manager by any means to question the timing of a particular competition in the fixtures calendar.

Indeed, he feels Ulster's cause could be helped if a more convenient slot could be found for the inter-pro series.

"All the boys who will be playing for Ulster will be in action in the league with their counties the following week and it means that there is no reprieve for them," adds O'Kane.

"I think that if a more suitable time for the competition could be found it would enjoy greater status and I would love to see this issue addressed sooner rather than later."

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