THE BANK OF IRELAND CELTIC CHALLENGE
Division Two Final
Antrim vs North Cork
Venue: Netwatch Cullen Park, Carlow
Throw In: 4pm
By Brendan McTaggart
After last week’s superb victory over Offaly, Antrim U17 hurlers have qualified for the Celtic Challenge U17 Division Two All-Ireland Final. Eight points separated the sides with the score line flattering the Faithful County, a remarkable individual performance from Seaan Elliott helping the young Saffrons to the decider.
Having accounted for North Tipperary in their Semi-Final, it’s the men from North Cork that stands between Sean McManus’ side and an All-Ireland cup coming up to the Glens. The Rebel County booked their place with a last minute goal to account for their Premier neighbours by a scoreline of 3-12 to 1-16.
The young Saffrons have been playing some outstanding hurling on their path to the Final, not only with their performance against Offaly but their Play-Off (Quarter-Final) victory over Kildare. The Lilywhites ran Kilkenny to 10 points in their group games and were the Cats toughest opponents. Antrim had 25 points to spare three weeks ago against the same opposition and it was further proof that this current crop of players have been making remarkable progress.
To those with a closer and keener eye on the current crop of U17 hurlers, these results may come as no surprise. At U14 level they have taken the scalp of Wexford and but for some misfortune, they could have added Clare and Tipperary to that list. O’Donovan Rossa clubman McManus has been a mainstay throughout their age groups and he told us that their mantra for the Saffrons development is simple: “Hurling is a wonderful game made complicated by others. We’ve stripped it back and kept it simple. Team work and speed. We’ve stressed that what you do off the ball is just as important and what you do on the ball and everything must be done at speed, both mentally and physically. We’ve taken on board with each step up we take, from playing Down and Derry through to Kildare and Offaly that each team brings either or to the table. The Offaly match was a notable step up in class and the lads responded well to it. The Final will be another step but we know that this group of players are capable of progressing again.”
McManus described the Offaly match as key in their development mentally. Knowing that they can take on one of the traditional hurling counties and match them all over the pitch with every player winning their individual battle and it’s down to the players’ attitude more than anything: “Nothing phases these lads. Their application and attitude is fantastic. The numbers we’ve had out at training has been brilliant and we’re seeing a change in mind-set where the lads are making excuses to play for Antrim instead of the other way about.” McManus continued: “I think that the Dunsilly set-up has a lot to do with that. To see maybe 70-80 players out from U17 through to U21 on any given night is great to see. Dunsilly gives us a home that players and managers can relate to and the County Board should be congratulated for making this possible.”
The Celtic Challenge is now in its second year and after a few tweaks from last year’s competition, McManus feels that the current structure is hugely beneficial for the development of hurling in Antrim. The timing of the tournament means that the Saffrons will have competitive matches in the run up to the Ulster Minor Championship and a potential All-Ireland Quarter-Final. With as many as 10 players from the U17 squad expected to be in Collie Murphy’s panel and potentially a further six or seven starting, the Celtic Challenge has been the ideal preparations.
McManus gave the Saffrons a clean bill of health with Dunloy’s Anton McGrath being declared fit during the week after the removal of his cast. Another plus for Antrim after McGrath’s exploits for the Cuchullains in their recent U21 Championship campaign but a headache for selectors for the Final.
As far as Saturday goes, McManus told us that the players are buzzing for an All-Ireland Final but they are trying to keep things the same with a ‘business as usual’ attitude: “The lads are really looking forward to it but we want to keep them as grounded as possible. We’re doing nothing different and as far as we’re concerned it’s another 60 minutes of hurling. There is no doubting the talent that Cork has, maybe they’ll doubt the talent that comes from Antrim but that’s up to them. We know we’ll get no favours from Cork but we’re excited and looking forward to hopefully making more progress in these lads development.”