By Michael McMullan
CHRISSY McKaigue goes in search of a fifth Ulster hurling medal on Sunday, but he is enthused with the spotlight on their showdown with Dunloy and what it can do for hurling as a whole.
McKaigue, who has won 22 Derry and Ulster championship medals across both codes with Sleacht Neill, has billed the positivity towards Sunday’s clash as the best he has witnessed for an Ulster Club hurling game in his career to date.
“The coverage island wide for this game has been brilliant. I have never saw as much positivity and coverage towards an Ulster Club hurling game in my life. To me, that only bodes well and we have to be positive about that,” said the 33 year-old, who has recently appointed as the club’s full-time GPO.
“As players, we have to embrace playing on the big days and in front of the big crowds and hurling people who are interested in watch you. I think it is all positive.”
It’s a fifth meeting of the clubs in senior hurling and the Emmet’s have won the last four, with Dunloy winning the 2000 encounter with current Dunloy boss Gregory O’Kane hitting four points in a 4-11 to 0-9 win.
When the sides met in 2017, it attracted 6,142 fans to Owenbeg for the start of a rivalry that heads into the latest chapter this weekend.
“We’ve played against Dunloy in the past and they have always been so tight and competitive,” McKaigue outlined.
“You have so many Dunloy lads starring for Antrim playing at a really high level of county hurling. To win the Antrim championship like they have consistently is a sign of their consistently and their hunger to always be at the top table,” said McKaigue at Monday’s AIB launch of Sunday’s provincial final that will be streamed live on TG4’s YouTube channel.
“There’s reason why this game has gained so much media attention and interest from the neutrals because they know it is two very good teams going at each other and I think it is a very good advertisement for Ulster hurling because it is probably badly needed.”
After a county season that the Derry football skipper lift the Anglo Celt Cup and pick up an All-Star on the back of a litany of impressive man-marking roles, McKaigue is full of praise for the split season.
“I’m a fan of the idea of trying to condense the inter-county season,” he said, while suggesting that “certain refinements” could bring the GAA hierarchy to the perfect solution.
“We’re all open to different opinions but the reality is I do think the condensed season and going for the split season model was 100 per cent the right idea. I think if you speak to a large consensus of the playing group, they will say the same thing.”
McKaigue, who has been at the coalface of club and county, accepts that moving from club to county and vice versa – with little down time – is a choice players have to make. It’s either have break in the middle or play at the highest level possible.
“You can’t have it both ways,” McKaigue said. “I can’t sit here and complain to you and say I’m tired and I would like a break.
“Yes, there are times I am tired, mentally and physically, and there are times when I would like a break.
“If you’re smart with your training and you’re smart with the training structures within your club, and we have got a lot better at that, then I do think it’s achievable.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be this week than preparing for another provincial hurling final and going out to play against Dunloy next Sunday I would be wrong to say that I’m not grateful for that.
“I’ve always made it a priority in my sporting career to be in the best possible physical shape that I could possibly be in. That’s a lifestyle choice, that’s not a six-week thing prior to the championship or something like that.
“So I suppose for me I’m hugely passionate about sport and I’m involved in it now in my working life and what I do in my spare time so that allows me to think a lot about it and tweak things and whatever else.
“I must say that my appetite and hunger at the minute to keep playing for Derry for as long as I can has never been as strong as it is.”