Luca looking forward to shin-dig

Saturday will mark the return of the shinty-hurling compromise rules game for the first time since 2019. Niall Gartland investigates…

IT’S always good to give something new a go and Fermanagh hurler Luca McCusker is looking forward to playing in the return of the shinty-hurling series at Páirc Esler on Saturday evening.

It’s been four years since the last ‘international’ with the annual exhibition game subsequently put on hiatus due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

In case you were wondering, the Scots won in 2019, and in truth it wasn’t much of a contest as they ran out 5-11 to 0-4 victors.

Perhaps the reason it was so one-sided is the nature of the ‘hybrid’ game itself. The only player who can catch the ball is the goalkeeper and modern-day hurlers are unaccustomed to ground hurling, whereas shinty players strike the ball almost exclusively on the ground.

But that’s all part of the draw for Luca McCusker and the rest of the Ireland panel. He’s one of three Ulster-based players on the squad alongside captain Neil McManus (Antrim), Caolan Taggart (Down) and Niall Arthur (a Monaghan hurler who is originally from Clare).

The team is managed, meanwhile, by Damien Coleman from Galway, with an experienced backroom team of Kieran Kingston (Cork), Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton (Antrim) and eight-time All-Ireland Michael Kavanagh (Kilkenny).

We caught up with Luca for a chat ahead of Saturday’s International and he’s enjoying the camaraderie that goes along with being part of a motivated panel of players.

Speaking last Saturday, McCusker, who is the youngest member of the Shinty panel, said: “It’s some craic with the lads. There’s a good bit of fun in the changing room, there’s a couple of boys from Cork who are good craic and there’s a lad Mickey Joe Egan, he’s about the same age as myself, he’s a farmer from Roscommmon and he’s full of stories.”

“I’ve had two trials and two training sessions with the panel and it’s going well. The management team are making sure we’re aware we’ve lost the last few series so we really want to come out with a win, especially given the break since Covid. We want to do well.”

Asked if he knew much about Shinty before getting involved, he continued: “I knew very, very well. Though when I was u-18 with Fermanagh, a Scottish university was doing a tour of Ireland and they stopped in Fermanagh to try out the hurling for some reason.

“We did a training session with them and did half with hurls and half with shinty sticks so we’d a wee bit of experience.”

Legend has it that hurling is derived from the historic game common to both people. But they do have very significant differences and the composite sport maintains by necessity quite a few of the rules associated with shinty. McCusker is doing his best to get up to speed, however.

“It’s quite different, you’re not able to attack the ball with your hand, especially in the modern game where almost everything is played through the hand. It took a wee while to adjust to it but I’ve used the wall ball at Queen’s. I got a few boys to come out of the house and hit the ball against the wall for a while.

“You don’t have much time on the ball or you’ll get hit basically. You’re allowed to play the hurl which is quite a big difference from our game. If you’re going for the ball at all, they can pull for the ball no matter what’s in front of it. Their sticks are 40 inches so you have to be very wary.

“It’s mixed rules, they don’t have the points system in their game, so they have to adapt to that. But on the other hand they almost have a strike like a golf strike so it makes it easier for them to hit frees, that was a big reason why we lost, it was a big advantage for them.

Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton is involved in the management set-up, a great character with a wealth of knowledge.

“I’ve been chauffeured down to Dublin in the last couple of weeks by my Mum and Dad to save me travelling. Dad [John] has chatted more to ‘Sambo’ than I have. He played for Fermanagh for many years, he won an All-Ireland Junior title in 1994, and he’s loving have that chance to chat with ‘Sambo’.”

On the hurling front, it wasn’t exactly a year to remember for Fermanagh. They were relegated from Division 3A and the Nickey Rackard, a disappointing outcome for a side that won the Lory Meagher Cup in 2021.

“It was a tough year for us. There were a lot of games where we lost by two or three points. We played well against Wicklow but lost by a point or two down in Ederney. They went on to win the Nickey Rackard. We’ve a small enough panel to pick from and picking up a few injuries along the way really didn’t help us. It got tough near the end of the year, we lost to Armagh at home and we really needed to win that to avoid a relegation play-off against Roscommon.

“Then against Roscommon I pulled my hamstring in the first five minutes and we lost by a few. It was a disappointing year to be fair but hopefully we’ve a bit of luck in 2024. We’ve set very doable goals and we’re really going to target getting back to Division 3A and the Nickey Rackard all being well.”

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