Donegal hurlers begin their quest for championship glory this Saturday when they face Roscommon, in the second round of the Nicky Rackard Senior Hurling Championship in Athleague. (Throw in 3 pm).
A repeat of last year’s first round meeting in which Donegal pulled off something of a surprise victory over the Shannonsiders in O’Donnell Park on their way to a semi-final meeting with Monaghan. Donegal won that game 1-15 to 0-14 with Niall Campbell posting seven points, Ronan McDermott, netting the goal and Danny Cullen and Lee Henderson scoring two points each.
Donegal went into last year’s game on the back of a poor league campaign and just having avoided relegation. This year, the boot is on the other foot. It is Roscommon who had the poor league run where they picked up just one point, in a draw with Mayo, but lost to Down, Armagh and Meath, on their way to making the drop from Division 2B to 3B.
Donegal, on the other hand, had a very good league campaign, albeit it ended in disappointment with a poor performance and a 1-9 to 1-5 Division 3 final defeat to Fingal.
“It was our performance more than the disappointment of losing the final that was the most disappointing aspect of our game against Fingal. But other than that it was a good league for us and to be honest it exceeded our expectations,” Donegal manager, Ray Durack, insisted this week.
“Hopefully, we have learned from that game and have that performance out of our system. Preparations have gone reasonably well and we are ready for Roscommon, even though we have to play them on their own patch.
“Roscommon are not as strong as they used to be and they have been already relegated this season, albeit from a higher league, and after beating them last year we know we are capable of doing it again this year.
“But we are also aware as we proved ourselves last year, league form is no guide and Roscommon will be no pushover and besides they will be going all out to avenge last year’s defeat.”
Lee Henderson (pictured above) is Donegal’s only serious injury worry. While Durack has reported that a number of players are carry knocks and bruises, the MacCumhaill’s man is struggling to shake off a knee injury suffered in the league final against Fingal, just over four weeks ago.
But given Henderson’s importance to the team - he is Donegal’s main marksman, so far this season, having taken over the free taking duties from the now retired Niall Campbell - the manager is going to him every chance to prove his fitness.
“Lee is still receiving treatment and we are very hopeful that he will make it. He is a very important player in our set up and we are going to give him every chance and as a consequence we will not finalise the team until Friday night.”
The Donegal players are joining their county football colleagues for Friday night’s meet and greet session with supporters in O’Donnell Park.
And Durack expects to name the Donegal starting 15 to face Roscommon afterwards.
However, if Henderson should prove his fitness the line-up for the Athleague showdown is not expected to differ all that much from that which started last month’s league final against Fingal.
Justin McGee and Joe Boyle are expected to once again man the central positions in defence while Paul Sheridan and Danny Cullen, even if they did struggle in the physical stakes against Fingal, are more than likely to remain as the midfield pairing.
Sean McVeigh, Enda McDermott, Henderson (if fit), Stephen Boyle, Paddy Hannigan Ronan McDermott are expected to make up the attacking unit with Ciarán Mathewson and Kevin Campbell the likely candidates if any adjustments are to be made.
Roscommon already have a game played and a victory under their belts in the Nicky Rackard. Last weekend, they had seven points to spare, 1-18 to 0-14, over Sligo, also in Athleague, with Gary Fallon scoring 1-7 of that total from midfield.
The winners of Saturday’s tie advance to the semi-final of the competition in two weeks time, and 70 minutes away from a final outing in Croke Park at the beginning of June. All is not lost for Saturday’s vanquished either. They will get a second chance and a quarter-final meeting, on Saturday week, with first round losers Louth or Sligo.
In all there are six teams in the Nicky Rackard championship, Donegal, Roscommon, Tyrone, Monaghan, Sligo and Louth. The other game on Saturday sees Tyrone (who defeated Louth last weekend) going head to head with Monaghan, who like Donegal had a bye in the first round.