WHEN the Christy Ring Cup was introduced to the GAA calendar in 2005, it looked like a competition that was made for Down hurling.
At that stage they had just won promotion back to Division 1 of the National League and their championship form of 2004 saw Antrim brought to a replay in the Ulster final, and Galway – yes Galway – only putting them away in the qualifiers with a final quarter flourish.
Those days are now distant memories for Down hurling. They spent the winter of 2013 in Division 2B and due to opening defeats to Meath and London, that's where they'll be spending 2014 as well. In Ulster's Railway Cup semi-final, Down had just one starter – Eoin Clarke – on the starting 15. Derry had five and Armagh had one. That's how far Down have slipped in Ulster's pecking order.
Down are still looking for their first Christy Ring Cup title and will begin their ninth campaign against Kerry on Saturday at Páirc Esler. Things aren't all doom and gloom on the Ards, however. They did win their last three games to boost confidence ahead of the Ring Cup campaign and also collected a bit of early season silverware when they won the Kehoe Shield title.
Down will be hoping that the 'Paul Flynn factor' kicks in on the harder sod. The former Waterford All Star has been training Down this year and has made a few changes to their style of play. Flynn was shocked at the length and weight of the Down hurls and brought John Mullane's stick to training one night to illustrate his point.
Flynn (left) wants Down to focus on faster, smarter hurling. Now is the time of year that Flynn's coaching could make a difference. Manager Ger Monan has been boosted by a number of returnees this season, most notably Gareth Johnson, who came home from Australia prior to the league, and James Coyle who spent last year in London.
Any side with Johnson and Paul Braniff in its ranks has the ability to compete at this level, but the old problem for Down has been an over-reliance on Braniff in particular. Coyle is an intelligent hurler at corner-forward who also needs to chip in with a few scores, as does Michael Turley, Michael Ennis and Eoin Clarke. Ben Toner has been a welcome addition to the panel this year also. The Ballygalget clubman missed last season with a cruciate injury and has been a rock in the half back line during the league.
They will need to show major improvement from their Division 2B form, which is a level below most of the Ring Cup teams, so while Down have a more balanced side on paper than last season, it may be another year or two before they break their Christy Ring Cup duck.