Joe McDonagh Cup – Round Three
Antrim vs Laois @ Pearse Park, Dunloy Saturday May 16
Throw In: 1:30pm – Referee: Justin Heffernan (Wexford)
By Brendan McTaggart
Ding,….seconds out, round three.
We go again.
A perfect record, two from two and a home game against a side who are searching for their first points of the Joe McDonagh Cup. Sounds alight doesn’t it? Time for a reality check and some grounding. The team who are making the long journey to Pearse Park made the same journey just nine weeks ago to defeat Antrim and sentence relegation from Division 1b. It was Laois’ second victory over Antrim of the 2018 season after they took the spoils in O’Moore Park earlier in the campaign.
Forget about what the current McDonagh Cup league table might say, Laois come into this match as favourites. It’s been a good start to the competition from Antrim, a great start in fact and one that not many would have forecast but after a bruising encounter against Carlow in the Battle of Whiterock, the Saffrons will have possibly as many as four changes to their starting 15. One player who will be starting is Captain Conor McKinley. The Dunloy defender has been in superb form for Antrim and his performance against dangerman James Doyle last Saturday went some way to ensuring an Antrim victory over Carlow. Against a man who wreaked havoc on the Antrim defence in the Christy Ring final last year, Woody restricted him to just two points and as he told us, he’s happy just to be pulling on the Saffron shirt: “As long as I have a starting jersey on my back I don’t care where I’m playing. I started in half back against Meath before dropping inside and then against Carlow I had a specific job to do. I’m enjoying playing and being part of this team no matter what role I’m given.”
On the nature of the Carlow match, the Antrim Captain said: “We knew it was going to be a physical match. Any time we play Carlow it always is. It’s the type of team that they are but we showed on Saturday that we wouldn’t be bullied, and we can get physical where we need to as well.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the injuries and suspensions, the nature of the injuries and how they came about from last Saturday but we’re keen to forget about that now. As far as I was concerned, my thoughts started to turn to the Laois game from the full time whistle in Corrigan Park.”
Antrim have options in defence and attack to cover the absentees of Joe Maskey, Michael Armstrong, Eoghan Campbell and more than likely Neil McManus. Eddie McCloskey’s dynamism around the ’40 is a huge asset to have back in an Antrim shirt along with Dan McCloskey’s workrate while Arron Graffin and David Kearney will be vying for a berth in defence. James McNaughton could also feature such has been his form when being introduced and Woody praised the attitude of the players being introduced from the bench in recent matches: “We knew from the outset that our strength in depth would be tested but the boys that came off the bench on Saturday all made a difference. The boys that are injured and suspended are going to be a loss but we have good hurlers to take their place on Saturday.”
Matches against Laois are as common in recent years as Antrim against Carlow. Where familiarity can breed contempt, it means there are no surprises in either side. Antrim know Laois like the back of their hands at this stage and Laois will know the Saffrons likewise. It promises to be a fascinating encounter when you consider Laois would have been classed as the favourites for this competition. Now they are on the brink. A late defeat to Carlow was followed by a ten point defeat to the Kingdom and while Antrim have momentum from their recent victories, Woody told us that they know they are underdogs again: “They’ll have been eyeing us up as a potential two points and we’re under no illusions as to the task ahead.
“The match against Laois in Dunloy was probably the low point of the season if I’m honest. We came off the pitch that day not thinking that we were beaten by a better team but thinking we had beaten ourselves.
“We’ve learned from that game just like we’ve learned from every other game this season. We’ve been saying all along that this is a game by game process and I can’t stress that enough. These games are won and lost in fine margins. You just have to look at the first ten minutes of the Meath match – they had one or two goal chances that if they had taken them our campaign could have been a different story up to now.”
As it stands, a win on Saturday could leave Antrim within touching distance of a Final place and being part of the curtain raiser to the Leinster final in Croke Park and entry into the Liam McCarthy. The momentum is with Antrim, but Woody tells us they are taking it one game at a time: “When you’re winning everything becomes easy. It’s easy to get motivated for training and you look forward to these matches more and more. The momentum is fantastic and the helter-skelter nature of the schedule becomes less troublesome when you’re winning but I know, it can take a lifetime to get to the top but only two or three seconds to slip and end up where you started. We won’t be taking our eye off the ball at this stage.”
Every match in this competition brings different permutations. Two wins has brought optimism and momentum but more importantly it’s increased the belief. The belief in the squad, the management and the spectators. Laois are a huge ask. Another side who have a winning record against Antrim and another who will be expecting to take the two points away from Pearse Park on Saturday afternoon but expectation and dealing with it can be tough, especially when you’re coming off the back of two defeats. Antrim will need to find another level from where they have reached so far in the McDonagh Cup and they will need every little bit of help they can get on Saturday afternoon. The crowd need to get behind these lads from the first whistle. As Liam Sheedy said recently, be the 16th man. Be the difference.