AIB Ulster Club Hurling Championship Semi-Final @ Owenbeg
Dunloy vs Slaughtneil
Throw In: 2:30pm
Referee: James Clarke
By Brendan McTaggart
Dunloy celebrate their Antrim final win over Cushendall
For the people of Dunloy, all roads lead to Dungiven on Sunday. After a pitch inspection early Friday afternoon, Owenbeg was cleared ‘fit’ to play this weekend. The Cuchullains have an unblemished record when it comes to the Ulster Championship, this will be their 11th time competing for the provincial honour and they have taken the four seasons trophy back to the village on every occasion. The only time the Four Seasons Cup didn’t return to Pearse Park after county success was in 1998 when they were stopped from competing in the competition. A story for another day.
Reigning Ulster champions Slaughtneil are the Cuchullains opponents on Sunday and they’re opposition that need no introduction to anyone in Antrim and further afield. They’ve had battles with Loughgiel and Cushendall in recent times to no avail but last year they made their breakthrough. An early blitz against the Shamrocks proved to be decisive, the Derry champions recording 2-3 in the opening nine minutes before Loughgiel registered their first score of the match. In the end, four points separated the sides and Slaughtneil became the first team from the Oakleaf county to win the provincial hurling title.
Slaughtneil celebrate last season’s Ulster final win over Loughgiel
The Slaughtneil story is one of persistence, drive, hunger and perseverance. They’ve knocked on the door until the door opened and that door was ripped off the hinges in the Athletic Grounds last October. Slaughtneil will start Sunday’s semi-final as favourites and when you look at their credentials, it’s easy to see why. Reigning champions is the easy part but a closer look at the Robbies squad tells you they have an average of 23 and much like Dunloy, they have been bolstered by a crop of players who came through the ranks winning everything in front of them and that includes an Ulster minor title where they defeated Dunloy two years ago. They’re a team who thrive on proving the experts wrong and a team who learn on their feet but they’re overriding trait is their togetherness as a team. Yes, they have star players, forward Brendan Rogers has score 0-17 in his two championship matches this year with ten frees in that tally while he’s ably assisted in attack by Sé McGuigan and Cormac O’Doherty. Their game-plan revolves around an incredible level of work-rate in the rucks and breakdown. That’s where Captain Chrissy McKaigue and Gerald Bradley will be looking to dominate while their defence is notoriously water tight – conceding just 1-15 from play in their two matches. Expect Karl McKaigue and Paul McNeill to be tasked with man marking duties while the intelligence and positioning of Shane McGuigan and Sean Cassidy at the heart of their defence is the rock which the Slaughtneil defence is built. They’re a physical team and an incredibly athletic team that is borne from their dedication to their club – the vast majority of Slaughtneil’s 30-man squad are dual players.
Going into Sunday as underdogs won’t hinder the Cuchullains, they were third placed in the bookies at the start of the Antrim championship while Cushendall were expected to account for them in the county final. It will be the first time that they’ll have come into the Ulster championship without the favourites tag hanging around their neck if they are tp defy the bookies again they will have to match Slaughtneil for intensity right from the first whistle. The Ulster final last year showed that if you switch off against them they will punish you and they will look to come out of the blocks fast.
Sunday will be a huge examination of the Cuchullains half back line for the full 60 minutes and while it’s an area where the Dunloy men are certainly strong, they will be asked more questions throughout the match than they have been posed during the Antrim championship.
The Cuchullains have coped with every challenge that has come their way in the 2017 championship and they will need to do the same on Sunday. Against St John’s, in the words of Gregory O’Kane, they had to win the game twice while in the semi-final against Ballycastle they laid to rest any demons that would have been lingering from previous championship defeats. The county final came and they proved against the Ruairi’s that they are more than just a team for the future and on Sunday they have to beat the best that Ulster has to offer.
Can they do it? It would take a brave man to bet against them. You get the feeling that this Dunloy team haven’t played to their full potential yet. The 20 minutes after half time was simply breath taking and would have been enough to strike fear into any team, it will take more than 20 minutes to get the better of this highly talented Slaughtneil team. If the Cuchullains can do that, they may just be on the verge of another Ulster title. I’m backing Dunloy to defy the bookies again and continue their incredible record in the Ulster championship – the Cuchullains to dethrone the Robbies in the heart of the oakleaf county.
Pics by Mark Doherty