Hurling tempo rises as SHC reaches quarter-final stage

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The Bathshack Senior Hurling Championship has reached the Quarter-Finals stage and it’s the weekend that the majority of the top teams in the county have been waiting on.  We have a look at the match-ups ahead as all eight teams prepare for battle and lay their championship hopes and dreams on the line for 60 minutes.

By Brendan McTaggart

 

Loughgiel Shamrocks vs Kickhams CregganCRLL0829 copy

Saturday August 26

Venue: Pearse Park, Dunloy

Throw in: 5pm

Referee: Michael Hardy (Rasharkin)

Reigning champions Loughgiel get their defence of the Antrim championship underway on Saturday evening by taking on 2015 Intermediate champions Creggan.  The first of two matches at Pearse Park, the Shamrocks will start not only the tie against the Kickhams as favourites, but favourites to take ‘Big Ears’ back to Fr Healy Park for a 21st time in their history.

The Shamrocks have only tasted defeat twice in 2017 and not since the 14th May when they made the short journey to Cushendall leaving empty handed.  That defeat came after a draw with Dunloy and a defeat in Ballycran and left tongues wagging in the county that it was going to be a long season for the Loughgiel men.  Fast forward 11 league matches later and a tough yet epic Feis Cup saga with the Ruairi’s and the Shamrocks are on a roll, defeating all their closest rivals in the process.Spar advert copy

While most other teams have rotated in search of a winning formula, Johnny Campbell and his management team haven’t varied too far from a set 15.  It’s something that has stood them well in the league and will stand by them as they hope for another long championship campaign.

The Shamrocks have pace and precision all throughout their team.  An attack that has speed in abundance while their half back line have excelled, Damon McMullan improving with every game at centre half.

The emergence of Shan McGrath in the full forward line gives the Shamrocks further options in attack and potentially a headache for Campbell ahead of the championship.  McGrath’s recent form has been excellent and has eased the scoring burden on the likes of Eddie McCloskey and Captain Shay Casey.

Creggan have hit their own purple patch in recent times in Division 3/4.  11 wins on the bounce since a draw against Naomh Éanna on May 14 is a far cry from their early season form where they lost the opening two matches of their league campaign but like most dual clubs, the Kickhams have found their squad stretched to its limits at different times throughout the year.  That being said, they have shown that when they have their best 15 out, they are better than their league status would reflect.  They are still in with a shout of promotion though and it looks like it will be a straight shootout between them and Naomh Éanna to see who will join Sarsfields in Division Two next year.

In Conor McCann they have one of the in-form players in the county.  The Antrim county player grabbed the headlines when he scored 5-5 from play in a recent league encounter against Shane O’Neills while Thomas McCann too has plenty of county experience and his reading of the game from centre half can be integral to Creggan’s efforts.  Conor Small has formed a hugely dangerous partnership with Conor McCann at full forward and if given the right service, will cause the Shamrock full back line problems.

This will be Creggan’s second ever championship match at senior level and like last year, they face the reigning champions.  Saturday will represent the first ever meeting in championship hurling between the two clubs and while everyone loves an underdog story, I don’t see a fairy-tale ending.  The Shamrocks to progress to the last four.

 

Ballycastle vs RossaCRLY1614 copy

Saturday August 26

Venue: Pearse Park, Dunloy

Throw In: 7pm

Referee: Colum Cunning (Dunloy)

Saturday will be the third time in four weeks that these two will have played each other with each match growing in importance.  Both teams struggled in Division One with the Town relegated to Division Two for the first time since 2010.

Ballycastle defeated Rossa three weeks ago to keep their feint hopes of survival alive but in the return fixture in August 16, a three point defeat to the Shaw’s Road side sealed their fate as they paid the ultimate price for a mediocre season.

Turbulent would be an understatement when describing Ballycastle’s season but if we want to look for ‘silver linings’, we don’t need to look any further than 2015.  The McQuillan’s came within the width of the crossbar at Pearse Park to defeating Cushendall in the county final, a year where their league form was far from brilliant and they changed managers through the season – much like this year.  Six months later Cushendall were running out in Croke Park for the first time in their history.  Evidence if ever we needed it that the fate with the small ball can be decided with small margins.

Rossa survived in Division One but it’s been a tough year for the Shaw’s Road side.  They have talent in abundance but have struggled for form and consistency.  They will fancy their chances of reaching the semi-final with their recent three point victory over the McQuillan’s flattering the north Antrim men on further reflection.

Rossa will be looking to Deaglan Murphy and Stephen Beattie for the scores while in defence Eoin O’Neill, Gerard Walsh and Stephen Shannon will be hoping to keep the Town at bay.  Ballycastle’s scoring threat will come from Ciaran Clarke and Kevin-Barry McShane while they will be hoping that Saul McCaughan can recapture the form that had the county talking about his exploits.  In defence Neal McAuley will be pivotal while the return to full fitness of Matty Donnelly is a huge bonus for their hopes.KD Logo Complete copyIt’s hard to believe that this year marks 31 years since Ballycastle won the Antrim senior hurling championship.  Unthinkable when they won their last crown in 1986.  They sat at the top of Antrim hurling’s ‘Roll of Honour’ up until recent years but a generation has passed since The Volunteer Cup resided with the McQuillan’s.  Their form did improve after they changed management in mid-July with Gabriel Crawford and Shane Staunton teaming up with Chris ‘Bamba’ McAuley to take over the reins from Raymond McMullan but I don’t think that this year will be the year that they break their drought.  Rossa should progress to the semi-finals but don’t be surprised if Ballycastle find their championship form once again.

 

 

Cloughmills vs Cushendall3 copy

All Dalled Up bannerSunday August 27

Venue: Fr Healy Park, Loughgiel

Throw In: 2:00pm

Referee: Owen Elliott (Ballymena)

Another David versus Goliath encounter for the Ruairi’s after they saw off the challenge of Clooney Gaels in the preliminary round and another chance for one of the ‘lesser powers’ of Antrim hurling to take a scalp in the championship.

Despite playing for the entirety of the second half with 14 against the Ahoghill side, Cushendall progressed with no causes for concern.  They will be hoping for more of the same on Sunday against the Biddies who will be looking for a maiden victory in the senior championship after their exploits in the Intermediate championship in 2016.

Having also gained promotion from Division Two as well as capturing the Intermediate Championship, 2016 was the standout year for the men from Cloughmills.  It’s a fair assessment to say however that they have found life difficult while dining at the top table in Antrim hurling.

These two sides have played each other once in the league this year with the Ruairi’s taking the honours.  11 points separated the sides back in June with the return fixture postponed recently so when it comes to head to head matches between the sides, we don’t really have much to go on.

Their overall league form is easier to decipher.  The Biddies found life too tough in Division One and despite a handful of eye catching performances, they have made an immediate return to Division Two.  Cushendall on the other hand continued to show throughout the league and Feis that they are one of the favourites for the Championship.  Good teams win championships, great teams win them back to back.  There is no doubting the calibre within the Cushendall ranks even with their growing list of absentees.  They will be missing Alex Delargy and Emmett Laverty who are now based in America and Australia respectively while Christy McNaughton’s season has been ended with a knee injury a few weeks ago.  Karl McKeegan has hung up the hurl and is part of the management team these days while full forward Sean McAfee will be missing Sunday’s encounter having received a one game suspension for his red card in the preliminary round.

It’s a list that has left a fair gap in the Ruairi’s attacking arsenal but they have as strong a defence as there is in the county with Arron Graffin, the Burke brothers and Ryan McCambridge starting to find some of the form he showed in their run to the All-Ireland Final and in attack they still have the talents of Neil McManus, Natty McNaughton and Paddy McGill to call upon.

Cloughmills haven’t been helped with injuries throughout the year that has threatened to decimate an already small squad but in Aaron Smiley they have a player who is a natural sweeper and reads the game exceptionally well while Michel Devlin, Geoffrey Óg Laverty and James Doherty can produce pieces of brilliance on any given day.

I wouldn’t expect another mammoth defeat like the Ruairi’s dished out in the 2016 Feis Cup Final between these two sides but I can’t see anything other than safe passage to a potential semi-final showdown with Loughgiel for Cushendall.

Martin Hurls

 

Dunloy vs St John’sEA7I7007 copy

Sunday August 27

Venue: Páirc Mhuire Cushendall

Throw In: 5pm

Referee: Fiontann McCotter (Sarsfields)

Village Inn

The tie of the round and one that will be closer than many people might predict.  Dunloy will start this one as favourites but this quarter-final tie with St John’s has got banana skin written all over it for the Cuchullains and it promises to be a tantalising encounter.

The Johnnies come into the Championship on the back of having suffered just one defeat in their 13 league matches in 2017 and have sealed promotion back to Division One at the first time of asking.  They have swept aside their opponents throughout the league campaign with their only defeat coming against Portaferry back in late May.

This is a St John’s team that have had as many as eight players to have worn the saffron shirt in the last five years and a St John’s side that could and probably should have ended Cushendall’s run to an All-Ireland Final before it ever got started two years ago!  Ahead by eight points going into the last ten minutes and the rest is, as they say, down in the history books.  They have proved that the talent within their squad is too much for Division Two and perhaps the confidence gained from playing and winning regularly in a lower Division will stand by them in the championship and looking ahead to next year’s league campaign.

The Cuchullains have been priced at 6/1 at some book makers to end their eight year drought and bring the Volunteer Cup back to Pearse Park and it has tempted plenty already within the county to have their wager.

Having won back to back minor championships in 2015 and 2016 and claiming the U21 championship so comprehensively already this year, that confidence in the Cuchullains doesn’t seem to be misplaced.  In Conal Cunning and Keelan Molloy they have two exceptionally talented and gifted hurlers who have taken to their first full year at senior grade like a duck to water. Nicky McKeague’s free taking ability has been imperious throughout the league and with Nigel Elliott also having a good year, the Dunloy attack is certainly looking more potent and dangerous than it has in some time.  The addition of Cunning and Molloy to this year’s team has given the Dunloy men an edge in attack that they have been lacking in recent years.

In defence Conor ‘Woody’ McKinley has been in exceptional form for club as well as county while his half back colleagues of Kevin McKeague and Kevin Molloy have formed a formidable partnership but they will have their hands full against a lively St John’s attack.  Conor Johnston and Miceál Bradley will carry the main threat for the Johnnies while Conor’s brother Ciaran will form part of a talented defence along with current county Captain Simon McCrory.  The Johnnies themselves have had success at underage level in recent years with the Johnston brothers along with McCrory and Bradley all having claimed minor success in 2011

Momentum can carry teams a long way and as the saying goes, winning can become a habit and it’s a habit the Johnnies have got into.  The Cuchullains certainly haven’t had a bad league campaign themselves and up until their epic encounter with Loughgiel were they were pipped by their closest rivals in injury time, the Dunloy men were still in with a shot of claiming the league crown.

Dunloy certainly look a different animal this year and much of that has been down to the fitness levels of Paul Shiels.  ‘Shorty’ has been plagued with a hip injury in recent times and after undergoing surgery last year, with each passing league match he has been involved in, you could see him regaining his sharpness and crucially for the Cuchullains he is closing in on being back to full fitness and back to his exceptional best.  His reintroduction back to 60 minutes of hurling has been managed well by the Dunloy management all with the aim of having him match fit and ready for the championship.

The bookies rarely get these match-ups wrong and they have Dunloy down as favourites to make the next round.  I expect the Cuchullains to progress but write the Johnnies off at your peril!Creagh copy2

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