Hurlers hoping to make home advantage count

The Athletic Grounds is the venue for the beginning of Armagh’s Nicky Rackard Cup campaign as they host Leitrim on Saturday.

The Armagh hurlers have had a heart-breaking relationship with the competition in recent years and will once again go in as one of the favourites to secure the title.

The Orchard County have made the Nicky Rackard Cup decider four times in the last five years, losing out on each occasion.

2012 was the last time they got their hands wrapped around the trophy, doubling up on their maiden win two years previous.

Last season was a hard one to stomach for the men in orange and white as they were so close to finally getting over the line.

Sligo just edged the final and got their name on the cup with one point to spare by the time the final whistle sounded, 2-14 to 2-13.

Armagh’s big aim will be to right the wrongs of that day and they hope to get back to that stage once again this year.

That journey starts with an opening day contest against Leitrim, who will travel to the Athletic Grounds full of confidence.

While Armagh left Croke Park last season full of regret, Leitrim have fonder memories of their visit on the same day.

They claimed their first ever Lory Meagher Cup, winning by the minimum of margins against Lancashire and gaining promotion to the Nicky Rackard.

More recently they contested the Division 3B final but were on the losing side this time around as Sligo were four points better off.

Still, Leitrim put up a huge score, returning 2-16, but their form hadn’t been great before Covid-19 halted proceedings.

Yes, they had done enough to reach the final, but only on score difference as they won just two of their four outings.

Armagh on the other hand topped the Division 3A table, also on score difference, without losing a single game.

Longford and Tyrone both claimed draws against the Orchard County while Donegal, Louth and Monaghan were all defeated.

Of course, Armagh did lose their first game of the season in the league final, with Donegal exacting revenge for their opening day loss.

Armagh haven’t fielded from that defeat to Donegal back in March, so if Leitrim have one advantage, it’s that they have played as recently as last weekend.

As usual, Padraig O’Connor’s side will look to their strong Middletown contingent to help get them the win.

Dean Gaffney is currently the leading scorer, having hit 2-36 throughout the league while his brother Ryan is another scoring threat.

The Curry’s, Nathan and Odhran, along with Tiernan Nevin, Paddy McBride, Fintan Woods and Kieran McKernan are other key members from the Middletown club.

Danny Magee, Aaron Fox and Eoin McGuinness are leaders in the county set up and will be key for Armagh this weekend.

Gavin O’Hagan is the main player in the Leitrim ranks and his accuracy from the dead ball will be a concern for Armagh.

The Orchard County should have enough to see them through to the next round and will hope home advantage can help get them across the line.