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Ulster trio take strides towards national title joy

By John Campbell

National hurling silverware still remains a rare commodity in Ulster where the sport is currently perceived as being on a life-support machine.

Yet if a week is a long time in politics, four hours can prove a defining period in sport.

In was in that period over the weekend that three Ulster counties - Down, Armagh and Fermanagh - thundered out an All-Ireland message of defiance.

The trio now find themselves on the threshold of glory, although they face formidable challenges.

Down reached the Christy Ring Cup semi-finals by beating London 1-16 to 0-14 at Ballycran while Armagh held firm to see off the feisty challenge of Donegal in their Nicky Rackard Cup semi-final at the Athletic Grounds to win by 1-19 to 1-12.

And, not to be outdone, Fermanagh made it three wins on the trot by conquering Leitrim 2-14 to 1-14 to clinch their place in the Lory Meagher Cup final.

Down's success owed much to the opportunism of Gareth Johnston and by landing the only goal of the game, he provided the impetus for his team's performance.

London had competed vigorously for the greater part but when they were reduced to 14 players in the closing 10 minutes their challenge petered out.

Manager Michael Johnston must now plan for the semi-final in the hope that some of his more established players who have been missing lately will make a return to full fitness.

Armagh, meanwhile, relish their imminent return to Croke Park and a renewal of their rivalry with Roscommon in the Nicky Rackard Cup decider.

Manager Sylvester McConnell was full of praise for the manner in which they overcame Donegal on Saturday with the long-serving Ryan Gaffney potting eight points from frees and marauding full-forward Eoin McGuinness contributing 1-1.

"It was a professional performance. Hurling is an honest game and that's exactly how they played it," stated McConnell.

Fermanagh, too, are off to Headquarters following wins over Warwickshire, Lancashire and Leitrim that have taken them to within 70 minutes of what could prove an epic Lory Meagher Cup triumph.

In the 2-14 to 1-14 win over Leitrim, Kevin McGarry hit an early goal and when Ciaran Corrigan added a second, Leitrim's goose was cooked.

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