Down-Derry derby clash has a big prize at stake

National Hurling League Division 2B final

Derry v Down

Sunday, Athletic Grounds, 2pm

CORMAC O’Doherty, the Derry forward, has been very busy of late.

He has won two Derry Senior Club Championships with Sleacht Néill since club action resumed after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown ended.

“It was nice to be able to focus on your club. It was enjoyable and the success helped a lot,” he said.

Now he  turns his attention to the county hurlers who can win promotion to Division 2A if they beat the Down hurlers.

“The club season ended last Sunday and the full focus is on what the county season brings.

“We have the league final against Down. That will be a massive battle, whatever we can get out of it is a bonus at this stage.”

Down are familiar competitors for Derry. O’Doherty said that he forgets how many times that he has played against them.

“It has never been a one-sided game. It’s always been a  point either way.”

The two sides met in the league at the end of January in the opening round match. Derry won by a goal, 1-19 to 0-19. O’Doherty scored 0-13, 0-12 from placed balls.

“That result won’t have any bearing on this weekend,” O’Doherty said.

“We know it is going to be a tough game. They are strong all over. You can see from their club championship, their key forwards are in great form. The day we played them in the league they probably deserved more from the game than they got. They are going to come and try to improve on that.

“They haven’t changed the way they  play. But they have super forwards. They will want to get them on the ball as much as possible.”

O’Doherty said that he felt that Derry were in good form before the lockdown.

“We were fortunate in our draw against Kildare. We know ourselves that our performance levels have to get better.

“It’s hard to know where we are at, or where any team is at with no games. Everyone is in that position. It is hard to judge how we are going. We will find that out on Sunday.”

Winning would be massive.

O’Doherty said: “To get to move up the leagues, and to get to play against that better quality of team would be huge for Derry. Obviously we played in it five years ago, the gulf in quality was there and we struggled to make a mark.

“Since John (McEvoy) and his team has come in we have tried to get to that level and test ourselves against the best and that is all you want to do.

“If we can get over Sunday then hopefully that is what we will be doing.”

Down obviously feel the same way.

Down manager Ronan Sheehan (left) watched the Down Championship and what he saw were players who were in fine shape for county hurling.

“The Down Championship was excellent preparation. That has meant that boys have come back well prepared and sharp.”

There were negatives though. They have lost Danny Toner to an injury suffered during that club championship.

They won’t have PJ Davidson as his sister has tested positive for Covid-19 so he has to isolate.

Sheehan said that they played Wicklow in a friendly 10 days ago as preparation for the league final.

“It was a good performance,” he said.

“We were due to play Armagh but it was called off because of cases (of Covid-19).

“We are in as good as shape as we could be. Are we in as good a shape as we would usually be if Covid wasn’t happening? Probably not. But everyone is in the same boat.”

Yet they are in the position they wanted to be, playing for a promotion place.

“Unfortunately unlike the football where the top two are promoted, only one can get promoted in hurling.

“One of us, either Derry or ourselves, is going to be disappointed on Sunday after doing all the work to get ourselves into a league final. After the season was so disrupted it is going to be unfair to the team that doesn’t make it up.

“But look, this year is not a normal year, is it?”

The prize is a place in Division 2A, however the odds favour Derry who have been the better side in the recent clashes between the two teams.

In the last three matches they have played, Derry have won all of them.

“They will be going in as favourites,” Sheehan said.

“They might be expecting to win having won the last three times we have faced off. But in saying that there hasn’t been much in it. We would be hoping that we could get the rub of the green to get us over the line. But Derry are going in after topping the table.

“They are also coming off the back of Sleacht Néill’s impressive peformance in the Derry Championship.

“But I give us a fighting chance. We will be confident that we can get a win if we play to the best of our ability.”

Three wins and three defeats does not make for a good stat.

Yet as the coaching adage goes, teams must either win or learn.

“If we look back at those games there are a couple of key things for us. Giving away frees does not help. Look Cormac O’Doherty doesn’t miss many frees. He’s one of the best free-takers, not just in Ulster, but in Ireland. To be fair to Cormac, he’s not just a free-taker. People don’t give him the credit for his general play.

“But if we give away ten or 11 frees he will convert them.

“The other thing is our conversion rate. We have not been taking our chances. Our conversion rate was 50 per cent. We have been working on trying to improve our conversions, and if we can cut down our fouls then we have got a fighting chance.”

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