Rafter is eager for Monaghan to progress
By Michael Devlin
After defeat to Armagh in their opening Nicky Rackard Cup tie on Saturday, a home victory over Longford this weekend is imperative if Monaghan are to achieve their objective of progressing to the competition’s final four.
Speaking before the start of the hurling championship season last week, team captain Fergal Rafter said that top of the list of priorities for the Farney hurlers was passage out of Group Two and into the semi-final.
Monaghan made it to that stage last season, only to suffer a heavy 21-point loss to eventual Nicky Rackard winners Donegal. A harsh lesson was learnt, and Rafter believes his team can make amends this time around, but the focus is on getting there first.
“We’d like to get out of the group and get into a semi-final, we feel we are good enough to make it. Once you get into a semi-final anything can happen.
"We didn’t cover ourselves in glory last year against Donegal, but we hope we can build on it and we feel we’ve made progress. We’d be hoping to make a semi-final and we’ll take it from there.”
While Rafter may have missed out on the chance to trot out in Croke Park in Monaghan colours last July, club duty brought him to GAA headquarters earlier this year as part of Castleblayney’s crusade to the All-Ireland Junior Hurling Championship final.
With Dunnamaggin, from the hurling aristocracy of Kilkenny, the opponents, the odds were firmly stacked against the Monaghan men, but it was far from the one-sided contest that many expected. Led by the inspirational Rafter, ‘Blayney dominated the final stages of the opening half to lead by two points at half-time, and they looked to be on course for a memorable triumph until a late scoring spree from Dunnamaggin sealed the win.
“Yeah, it brings back some good and I suppose some bad memories,” pines Rafter, whose haul of 0-9 that day almost spurred his club to a remarkable success. “We didn’t get over the line, but it was an incredible feeling to be on the pitch and hear ‘Blayney’ being chanted around the stands of Croke Park. The support that day was incredible.
“We did run a Kilkenny team very close, and I suppose it was a bit disappointing in the end, but we have to be massively proud of the achievement of getting there. We said at the start of the year, we set our stall out. It wasn’t a pipe dream, it was realistic and we worked towards it, and it shows what a bit of hard work and unity can bring you.”
Such is often the case that a club’s outstanding campaign can impinge on the fortunes of the county team at the start of the new season. Monaghan had to contend without their influential Castleblayney contingent for the first two games of their Allianz Hurling League Division 3B campaign, falling to defeat both times.
“The League was a mixed bag,” says Rafter. “We missed first two games being away with the club, and then we came back and it gave a bit of a lift after the boys lost the first two games. We had our full strength team and we won the remaining three games. Unfortunately we didn’t make a league final, but there were positives to build on.
“With the county in the last couple of years we have reached league finals, and it’s always definitely a goal that we set out at the start of each year. Obviously we did play the two strongest teams in the division first, Armagh and Roscommon, so there’s no guarantee we would have beaten those two teams anyway. But again, it might have been the case of what might have been.”