Meehaul McGrath pictures at the launch of the Christy Ring Cup, which starts this weekend at Owenbeg. Pic by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile.
CHRISTY RING CUP ROUND 1
DERRY v WICKLOW
SUN APR 10
REF: JAMES CLARKE (CAVAN)
Fresh off the back of an Ulster intermediate title and All-Ireland club semi final with his club Banagher, Derry attacker Brian Óg McGilligan has pride coursing through his veins.
Coupled with Slaughtneil cementing their status as Ulster's senior kingpins, the Oakleaf hurlers are developing a taste for victory, and soaking up the confidence and swagger that comes with it.
“It was a big boost. We know all about Slaughtneil, as does every club in Ireland. What they've done the last couple of years has been unbelievable,” he said.
“For ourselves, it was great to go on and win an Ulster – the first time in our club's history and the first Derry team to win an Ulster intermediate.
“It was great to represent Derry in the Ulster and All-Ireland stage, and to make people aware that there are some clinker hurlers and clubs in the county.
“We are very proud hurlers in Derry, and it was great to get that opportunity.”
That winning mentality has served the county's hurlers well this season.
Dominic McKinley's side have been performing well this season.
Dominic McKinley and Cormac Donnelly's side took the Division 2B title in Ederney last week, maintaining their 100% record in 2022.
There is searing competition for places in the current squad, and with the Christy Ring Cup throwing in hot on the heels of the league win, McGilligan says everyone is 'raring to go'.
“Last year and the year before were tough with Covid, and the season was pushed back, chopped and changed,” said the school teacher.
“Different men had different commitments and maybe weren't committing fully, but this year there has been a huge buy in, every man is at training and pushing for places.
“Everyone is going to be fighting for their spot, every man is being pushed on and it's great to see.”
When the squad sat down at the start of the season to discuss priorities, promotion was the number one aim, but thoughts of championship are never far over the horizon.
“We met at the start of the year and the first objective was to focus on the league and get promoted, but the Christy Ring is definitely at the back of everyone's mind,” said McGilligan.
McGilligan, pictured with parents Brian and Breige, was delighted to get over the line in the league final after a few missed attempts in recent years. Pic by Mary K Burke.
“Again, we've had a few near misses with it too. Last year we got to the final – albeit against Offaly, who are an outstanding side.
“There is not much of a turnaround from the league final to the start of the Christy Ring. I don't think we'll be too far away.
“If we keep improving and going the way we're going, why couldn't we go on and give it a real good shot?”
Kildare will be the acid test for Derry when it comes to the Christy Ring crunch, with the clash coming in Round 3 of five initial rounds.
The Lilywhites have plied their trade in Division 2A this year, albeit while flirting with relegation, and competed at Joe McDonagh level last year.
Like Derry, they will have their eye on taking home the title and returning to the higher championship level at the first opportunity.
Darragh McGilligan in action. Pic by Mary K Burke.
Oakleaf joint manager, Antrim's Dominic McKinley, says his side are in a good place.
“Last year, we didn't get any time to get to know players individually; what they were prepared to do and not prepared to do,” he said.
“We're happier this year. You're always happy when you're looking after a team and you have players. There is nothing without players.
“You need 30-odd players prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel for Derry hurling, and at this moment and time, we're getting that.”
Sunday's opponents, Wicklow, are a familiar foe for Derry, having played them a number of times in recent years.
They remained in Division 2B by the skin of their teeth, winning a relegation play-off against Mayo by 0-16 to 0-15, but had a notable draw with league finalists Sligo during the campaign.
Championship heat on the horizon is just beginning to thaw winter's chill, and thoughts are turning towards the business end of what will be another condensed season for intercounty hurling.
The league title is banked, and Derry have commitment, talent and the right amount of hurler's zeal for the challenge of chasing down that elusive league and championship double.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.