Down hurlers ready to rock the Royals
By John Harrington
Down defender Caolan Taggart is confident the Mourne County hurlers can pull off an upset against Meath in Saturday’s Christy Ring Cup Final.
Meath hurl in a higher Division in the League and were Christy Ring Cup champions as recently as 2016 whereas Down haven't featured in a Final since they beat Kerry in the 2013 decider.
But they’re coming into Saturday’s Final with a lot of momentum after racking up a whopping 13-82 in their four matches to date.
The Sands brothers, Daithi and Eoghan, have scored a combined 11-11, while Paul Sheehan (0-23) and Oisin McManus (0-21) are also in a rich vein of form.
It’s because of that firepower that Taggart is bullish about his team’s chances against Meath.
“To be fair, when you're from Down you're always the underdog,” he told GAA.ie. “I'd nearly prefer that, because we're coming in with no expectations weighing on us.
“We know in our camp that we can do it.
“We're flying fit at the minute and we have forwards who can do damage. They're young, fit, quick. All we need to do is get the ball to them and they'll do the rest.
“Down has traditionally been known for their strong defenders, we haven't really had forwards apart from Paul Braniff and Gareth Johnson in recent times, but now we have a different class of forward. You can put the ball anywhere and they'll get to it.
“On a pitch like Croke Park and with the quick forwards we have, I don't see many defenders being able to stop them.”
Taggart joined the Down panel after their 2013 Christy Ring Cup victory as a 17-year-old but until this year he had experienced more lows than highs as an inter-county hurler.
“Even as recently as last year when we were beaten by Derry in the quarter-final, that was a tough one,” said Taggart.
“The feeling you get whenever you're beaten and you know you're out and it's the season over.
“We sat down last year and just said, 'Boys, this can't happen again, we have to give it our very best'. And, to be fair, this year we have done that.”
Down might have struggled at senior inter-county level in recent years but behind the scenes a lot of work has been done to increase numbers at club level.
The three Ards peninsula clubs – Ballycran, Ballygalget, and Taggart’s own club Portaferry – have traditionally supplied the bulk of the Down panel.
But now the game is growing on previously rocky soil and the make-up of the current panel reflects that development.
“This year we have a big showing from the rest of the county,” said Taggart. “The likes of Paul Sheehan (Newry Shamrocks), you've boys from Ballella, four or five boys from Liatroim, you've boys from all over the show now playing from the county.
“The standard is rising all over the county, it's really picking up all over now and not just in Ards clubs.”
The average age of the current Down team is in the low to mid-twenties, so their short to medium term future looks bright.
Winning a Christy Ring Cup and making the jump up to the Joe McDonagh would surely accelerate their development, and Taggart believes it would Down hurling in general a real shot in the arm.
“Yeah, if we could win it would lift the whole thing even more,” he said. “Even the scene in schools, where kids are playing, it would give that whole thing a lift.
“People in the club are always coming up to ask you how you're getting on now, and, if anything, it would bring more boys into the county set-up because they see a bit of silverware and you get all the players involved that you'd want involved.
“There's a lot of positives that have come from us even being back in Croke Park, so, if we could win it, it would be huge.”