Bathshack Senior Hurling Championship
Dunloy Cuchullains vs Loughgiel Shamrocks
Sunday September 30
Venue: Páirc MacUílin, Ballycastle
Throw In: 3.30pm
Referee: Darren McKeown (St Galls)
Brendan McTaggart previews Dunloy vs Loughgiel in the SHC Semi-Final
The Dunloy and Louhgiel teams who last met in the championship final of 2012 at Casement Park.
30th September 2012. The last time there was a senior county hurling final to be played in Belfast and Casement Park. That in itself is a sad stat but the other aspect of the date tells us it’s been six years since one of Antrim hurling’s fiercest rivals have played each other in the championship.
On Sunday, Dunloy and Loughgiel will take to the Ballycastle turf with hopes and aspirations that only championship hurling can bring and an edge with fire in their inners that only a derby can instil. It’s incredible to think that it’s been six years since these two played each other in the hotbed of championship action. On that Sunday evening under the floodlights on the last day of September 2012, Loughgiel were reigning All-Ireland champions and went on to take the crown with four points to spare in a low scoring affair. It was their third title on the bounce and came in a run of four in a row as the Shamrocks enjoyed a stranglehold on the Volunteer Cup at the turn of the decade.
Dunloy were a team in transition six years ago while the Shamrocks were on the crest of a wave. Bring things forward to the here and now, the table looks like it has turned. Dunloy are reigning county champions, growing in stature once again within the club scene while Loughgiel are, in the words of team manager Johnny Campbell, a team in transition.
It promises to be a fascinating tie. There is rarely more than the puck of a ball between these two rivals and while tensions are never far from becoming frayed, more often than not the hurling on display is top class. It’s one that the neutrals in the county won’t want to miss and we had a chat with the two managers on their thoughts on what lays ahead.
Cuchullains manager – Gregory O’Kane….
Reigning county champions Dunloy come into Sunday’s semi-final with the league title secured and sitting in the Pearse Park clubrooms. They have continued to develop players from their crop of talent coming off the conveyor belt in the village while also retaining their U21 crown. It’s fair to say the Cuchullains have looked to underline their seat at the top of Antrim hurling and are keen to press on with their development according to team manager Gregory O’Kane: “We took stock over the winter and assessed where we wanted to go from last year. It was great winning the championship last year but we were keen to not rest on our laurels as such. We want to keep developing the players and our style of play as well as looking for consistency.”
They won the league with a match to spare and O’Kane told us they are instilling a confidence from winning but a knowledge within the group of players that they are capable of more: “The league went well for us. It was good to be able to make changes and tweak the team here and there and still come away with the points. It showed that this team still has the hunger despite winning the championship last year. We know this group of players are only in their infancy with their development. They are far from the finished article and we’ve been trying to make the necessary changed to make the improvements.”
Before the championship final last year, some sources of media muted it was possibly a season or two too early for the Cuchullains. 2017 proved to be the year that the young Cuchullains would give a glimpse of their potential. O’Kane said that he feels his squad are in a stronger position now than 12 months ago: “There’s no substitute for winning championships when it comes to experience. These young lads won the championship last year and that experience will stand by them along with winning the U21 championship, they have the right mentality when it comes to the big games and they showed that last year.”
Action from the club’s last championship meeting back in 2012
A narrow win against Cushendall and a comfortable victory over Sarsfields has given the Cuchullains momentum coming into the match. They may not have hit the heights of 12 months ago yet, but that could be down to O’Kane’s feelings after the Ulster semi-final defeat to Slaughtneil where he felt his charges had peaked too early. There’s no mention of the Ulster club or even the final at this stage within the Dunloy camp. O’Kane told us that they’ve been focused on the next match all year and Sunday will be no different. The Dunloy manager assessed the Cuchullains two matches so far when he added: “Cushendall away was never going to be easy. They’re a top side and to play them in their own back yard was always going to be a big task. I was pleased with the fact the way the boys responded at different times in that match. I think there was three times, definitely twice that we had to comeback from four points down. To do that in the match that it was without scoring a goal was very pleasing. The players had to dig deep and I think we did enough to deserve the win in the end.
“Sarsfields at home was a no win situation. We were expected to win and win we did. In fairness to Sarsfields they had a very good 2017 as well and were in the senior championship on merit. They lost a few very key players and any club side would feel that loss but we had a job to do and I felt we put in a good performance on the day.”
Dunloy and Loughgiel is an age old rivalry with both teams bringing the best out of each other. Form book does invariably go out the window when these two giants of the game clash and O’Kane is expecting another fast paced, high tempo encounter on Sunday: “Look anytime we play Loughgiel there’s never more than a poc of the ball between us. They’ll come to hurl in a certain way and we’ll need to be at ourselves that’s for sure. We’re only 60 minutes away from a county final.
“The last time we played each other in the championship was in the 2012 final – that Loughgiel squad were probably at the peak of their powers at that time. It was a disappointing night for us, no one likes to get beat in a final but it’s game on for Sunday as far as we’re concerned.”
Shamrocks manager – Johnny Campbell…
Now in his third year in charge of the 20 time champions of Antrim, Johnny Campbell rejigged his backroom team at the start of the year with Carl Casey and Waterford native Clinton Henessey coming into his set up. The 2011 All-Ireland winning captain told us the move has had the impact he initially hoped for: “Clinton and Karl came in this year and it’s definitely helped to freshen things up. Both guys bring something different and experience and has certainly helped me. At the end of the day, I’m still cutting my teeth at management, this is only my third year in this role and I’m always learning. They’ve brought new idea’s and the squad have responded well.”
After winning the league in 2017, it was an indifferent year during the league for the Shamrocks. Rocked by a succession of injuries to key players. Campbell said that they’ve been their transition, although always in their mind, has been fast-tracked somewhat during the season: “We had our ups and downs during the league and our form was, it’s fair to say, patchy. We weren’t able to get any sort of momentum going like the way we had last year but it’s been a learning curve for us.
“The injuries we’ve had has sort of forced our hand a little. We’ve given other players a chance to step up and take their chance and we’ll probably need the same for Sunday.
“The loss of Barney (McAuley) and Liam (Watson) has been a huge blow for us. Barney snapped his achilies and Liam’s done ligaments in his ankle. If we’re lucky enough to make the final Liam won’t be far away but Barney’s season is over. The experience those guys bring is priceless but such is sport. It’s given someone else the opportunity to step up to the mark and make the shirt their own.”
James McNaughton, Maol Connolly, Cathal McMullan, Rian McKee and Sian McGrath are four players who have been to the fore front for Loughgiel this year. All haven’t looked out of place with the Shamrocks on their chest. McNaughton in particular has excelled while also proving he has a future with a Saffron shirt on his back. Campbell told us that no matter who makes the starting 15 for Sunday, they will have earned their starting place: “James McNaughton has become a regular started from where he was last year, I don’t think there’s any secret in that. He’s come on as a player and is hurling well – no doubt Dunloy will be mindful of him on Sunday but whoever makes the starting 15 as far as I’m concerned is there on merit. It’s no secret we’re a team in transition but regardless of what has happened before, in the here and now the starting 15 will have earned their place.”
The Cuchullains did the league double over the Shamrocks but Campbell felt they could have easily swung in their own favour: “We felt like we let those games go. Dunloy maybe edged things from a hurling perspective but we came away from those two matches with a gnawing feeling that we left it behind us but they aren’t going to have any bearing on what happens on Sunday. It’s a local derby with both teams I suppose you could say know each other inside and out. Both teams like to play a brand of fast and entertaining hurling and it will be a good game for the neutral.” On their opponents, Campbell concluded: “We’ve looked at them and they have pace in abundance with smashing hurlers all over the pitch. They are pretty versatile as well and we would be stupid not to implement a game plan to try and negate what they bring to the table but we’re keen to concentrate on our own game and what we can do. We’ll be wanting to implement our game on the day but the players are probably going to have to be thinking on their feet the whole time and adapt to certain situations.”
Loughgiel hold the bragging rights in relation to the last championship victory and while Dunloy have had the upper hand in the league, Campbell doesn’t see any relevance of either stat coming into Sunday’s last four encounter: “Both teams have changed a fair amount since that day. This is a totally different Dunloy team but we won’t need to be looking to the past for any sort of motivation for Sunday. The form book goes out the window in the championship and the fact it’s a local derby adds to the equation.”
The Cuchullains have tweaked their team all year with a number of different midfield pairings while rotating midfield and attack. They have options all over the pitch and a greater strength in depth from 12 months ago. Gregory O’Kane and his management team have a tough task selecting their starting 15 and it’s difficult to second guess who they will chose to start on Sunday. There won’t be a huge amount between the teams, there never is and while Dunloy haven’t reached the peaks of 12 months ago, they know they have it in them and there’s nothing like a Dunloy versus Loughgiel game to bring the best out of you. If rumours are to believed coming from different sources, Loughgiel may be without the services of James McNaughton and Neil McGarry. Both men picking up injuries in a recent training ground session. Campbell didn’t confirm either injury but if both are unavailable, McNaughton especially, it will probably swing my verdict to Dunloy. The Cuchullains to reach the decider.
Two of the young guns on show on Sunday, Dunloy’s Keelan Molloy and Loughgiel’s James McNaughton
Emmet Martin of Martin Hurls will present one of his hurls to the Man of the Match in Sunday’s semi-final
Good luck to all the teams in action this weekend, from Ridvan and Ali