National Hurling League Division 3A
Louth v Tyrone
Sunday, Darver, 2pm
THE National Hurling League may be preparing for its opening round of fixtures but Tyrone captain Chris Kearns has said that their clash with Louth is already a “must win” game.
Exaggeration? Probably not. Over the last two seasons the Red Hands have missed out on a Division 3A final place on scoring difference alone.
In 2018 it was a loss against the Wee county that proved particularly damaging whilst last season it was the home loss to Monaghan that stuck in the craw when they analysed the final standings.
So, it’s no surprise to hear Kearns proclaim that there is no time to settle into this division, particularly as it also contains Ulster rivals Armagh, Donegal and Monaghan.
“It’s a game we have to win,” Kearns said ahead of the clash with Paul McCormack’s side.
“The Monaghan game last year was a big disappointment and probably cost us a place in the National League final.
“You need to be building momentum straight away and it’s four games, five if you reach the final, and our main aim this year is promotion out of Division 3A.
“We need to be playing at a higher standard, that’s no disrespect to that league but we feel that if we want to be taken seriously we have to play at a higher grade and get faster hurling.”
Tyrone endured a difficult McGurk Cup campaign in January with Mattie Lennon’s side losing to Sunday’s opponents by eight points before hosts Queen’s put 4-16 past them.
While admitting that their loss to Louth would have little impact on this weekend’s fixture, Kearns said that it was a reminder that they are preparing to face difficult opposition.
“We played Louth a couple of years ago down in Darver and they beat us,” said the Naomh Colum Cille clubman.
“Last year we beat them twice but they have home advantage in Darver again. It’s their backyard and they’ll not be easily beaten.
“This is the manager’s second year so I’m sure they have picked up a lot from him over the past 12 months.
“They know how we play and they know our strengths, and they’ll be aiming to take advantage of that knowledge.
“We have three away games and two home games. We have Donegal away next, there are no easy games in this division.”
These are exciting times for Tyrone hurling with great strides being taken at county level in recent years.
That has extended to the club scene too with Eoghan Ruadh coming agonisingly close to an Ulster Intermediate title last season before losing out on penalties to Antrim’s Naomh Éanna in the final.
Kearns, perhaps as a result of his Antrim roots, has a good casting eye over what is happening across the province.
“Last year people would have said that Armagh hurling was far better than Tyrone but we beat them in the league and then we lost to them by two points (Nicky Rackard semi-final).
“There is obviously not a lot in that, then the Dungannon thing. Fair play to them and it maybe will give teams in Tyrone that bit of belief that they are not that far away.”
The downside of that incredible run was that the Dungannon contingent was late returning to pre-season training, and Kearns admits that it hasn’t been the smoothest of build-ups.
“Training sessions were difficult enough when it came to numbers,” he admitted. “There aren’t many clubs in Tyrone, four or five, and you take the Dungannon boys out of it and it’s a big number of players away.
“They had a couple of weeks’ rest after it was over and then to be fair to them they were straight back into the training and they are flying.
“The results didn’t go our way in the McGurk Cup but at that time of the year it’s just a case of seeing where boys are at.”
A number of young Dungannon players have been training with the panel while Lennon has received a boost with the return of Carrickmore’s Conor Grugan.