Ballycran set to take 'good pressure' in their stride this time out, insists Egan
It's not often that club hurling in Ulster takes centre stage on the Championship front, but Ballycran and Down player Chris Egan has come out fighting in his quest to see the sport bask in the spotlight this weekend.
Egan has taken on board the success achieved by several club teams to date in their respective county Football Championships and digested the huge numbers that have attended those finals, but now he feels it's time for hurling to make its own statement.
Ballycran's triumph in the Down Championship has persuaded 24-year-old Egan that provincial success is within their gambit, but with Antrim champions Dunloy forming the opposition in Sunday's semi-final at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh (2.30pm) he is aware that his side face a massive challenge.
Yet with hurling fever currently rampant on the Ards peninsula, a team which has grown in confidence, and with what Egan describes as "unbelievable support", are now primed to make a bold bid to reach the decider against Slaughtneil or Middletown.
"It has been shown over the past couple of weeks what success means to clubs. In football teams like Cargin, Kilcoo, Trillick, Crossmaglen Rangers, Derrygonnelly and O'Donovan Rossa, Magherafelt had plenty to celebrate, but when we won the Down Championship just recently there I could not believe the euphoria that was whipped up, we had unbelievable support" reflects Egan.
"Hundreds of people, old and young alike, were out on the pitch hugging us and wishing us well in the Ulster Club Championship. This is very gratifying but it is also very humbling.
"Everyone in the club is ecstatic that we are meeting Dunloy on Sunday, and while this puts pressure on us as players, it's good pressure because it's where we want to be.
"Success is wonderful, indeed it's amazing. For us to be back on the Ulster stage is brilliant but our task now will be to justify our presence there."
It has been apparent over recent weeks that people have become even more consumed by success at club level in both football and hurling, which has helped to put worries relative to Brexit and other cares on the back burner, if only temporarily.
"Yes, I think people out there welcome the feel-good factor that sporting success can bring that little bit more these days.," adds Egan.
"Everyone has their own problems, but you only have to look at the emotion that was sparked when Magherafelt won the Derry Football Championship after 41 years to see what it means to the folk there.
"It was the same with us when we won the Down Hurling Championship final. There were smiles and tears in equal measure, and this has encouraged us as players to do our level best on the Ulster stage. These people deserve no less than this from us."
Ballycran manager Michael Braniff insists that Down hurling is "in a good place at the moment" but admits that success in the Ulster Championship would be a massive boost for the sport in the county.
"The Ulster Club Championship is not new to us any more, we are battle-hardened by now but, at the same time, this guarantees us nothing," concedes Braniff. "We are no strangers to Dunloy as we play in the Antrim league and we are accustomed to meeting them. But obviously it will different in a Championship environment on Sunday."
Meanwhile, the Ulster Competitions Control Committee has decided that the Dr McKenna Cup should commence on the last weekend of December.
The revised calendar, which sees the Sigerson Cup competition being completed before the end of January, three weeks earlier than was the case last year, effectively eliminates the three university teams from competing in the McKenna Cup.
Commenting on the decision, Ulster GAA secretary Brian McAvoy said: "Two scenarios were put to committee members - the one which was adopted and another which would have meant all three group rounds of the Dr McKenna Cup played in December.
"There was little appetite from counties to start the competition pre-Christmas, a scenario which would have meant at least five counties having no organised pre-season games in January.
"With the Sigerson Cup now being run-off in January, it's unlikely now that our university teams will be able to participate in the 2020 competition.
"Ulster GAA has always valued greatly the participation of Queen's, Ulster University and St. Mary's in the Dr. McKenna Cup and we continued to offer them the opportunity to play in our pre-season football competition, even when other provinces did not."