Rocky Balboa has never seen Cushendall win an All Ireland semi-final

Saffron Gael contributor Colum Thompson looks back on the Ruairi’s 2016 win and feels they are in with a big shout this time around too

“Except for my kid being born, this is the greatest night in the history of my life!” said Rocky Balboa after winning the world heavyweight title in a rematch against Apollo Creed in the movie Rocky 2. No disrespect to The Italian Stallion, or my children for that matter, but Mr. Balboa has obviously never known the joy of watching his club defy the odds, rip up the form book and produce a performance for the ages winning an All Ireland Club Hurling Semi Final.

I was lucky enough to have experienced that feeling of utter ecstasy three years ago in Navan when my club Ruairi Og Cushendall absolutely dominated Galway champions Sarsfields. After a lifetime of trying we had finally broken the glass ceiling that had thwarted progress on nine separate occasions and we had qualified for an All Ireland Club Final. Yes we were well beaten in the final but it was still a remarkable achievement, a step further than ever before.

Colum Thompson was in the crowd when his beloved Ruairis beat Sarsfield in the 2016 semi-final in Navan. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

 We should enjoy our day in the sun, we’ll always have those memories from February 2016. Hurling people in traditional strongholds like Galway, Tipperary and Cork wouldn’t give us a snowballs chance in hell of repeating the dose this time round. “Ye Antrim boys keep the game going up there…” and the rest of the usual bullshit, scratch the surface and there is little or no respect. Our victory over Sarsfields was lucky (yeah 3-12 to 1-6, lucky). Ger Loughnane thought we were ordinary and we beat a very poor Sarsfields team, good enough to win a Galway title ahead of Portumna, St. Thomas, Gort, Athenry and Liam Mellows but still a poor team in Loughnane’s eyes. The bookies have us as 6-1 outsiders in a two horse race, we’ll go to Parnell Park and have a day out, ham sandwiches, a few pints and go back up the road. For the likes of Ruairi Og lightening doesn’t strike twice…

Or does it? Of the 15 who took the field three years ago 14 remain. And I’ll make the argument that we are a better team now. The likes of David Kearney, Ryan McCambridge, Eoghan Campbell and Alex Delargy have matured into battle hardened, proven championship performers. It also must be remembered that during the 2016 campaign Paddy Burke was missing through injury, fast forward three years and he captains our club magnificently and is a regular with Antrim as well. “They say time and tide waits for no man…” try telling that to Sean Delargy and Donal McNaughton, veterans yes but playing as well as they have ever played. Critical cogs in the Ruairi Og machine. “Arron Graffin An Injury Doubt For Semi Final After Horror Injury” was the headline in the Belfast Telegraph the Monday after Ruairi Og’s convincing Ulster Final win over Ballycran in early November. An injury doubt maybe to someone that doesn’t know Arron Graffin. If anyone can recover from that injury and take their place on the team it’s Ruairi Og’s defensive rock. If Graffin is the general then commander in chief is Neil McManus. His contribution to Cushendall’s success this year is utterly immeasurable, almost indescribable. And that man Paddy McGill, a maverick, the sort of player that can see things others can’t. And what full back fancies an hour competing for possession with Conor Carson or Sean McAfee? That physical size and strength is perhaps our greatest weapon. The deeper into winter, the heavier the ground and the tougher the conditions the better Cushendall perform. It doesn’t get much tougher than Parnell Park in February.

Neill McManus got Cushendall off to a flying start with a goal from a penalty in the third minute of their win over Sarsfields. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

   So what of our opponents? St. Thomas of Galway. All Ireland Champions in 2013 beating Loughgiel along the way. Galway Champions 2012, 2016 and 2018. We know all about the Burkes and Conor Cooney. We know how impressive it is to win three of the last six Galway titles and we know that history is on their side. They are a well drilled, experienced outfit who must be respected but unbeatable? Nobody is unbeatable. In previous years going to an All Ireland semi-final has been more in hope than in expectation, David standing in Goliath’s shadow, but not this year. The hype and carnival atmosphere these occasions used to bring isn’t evident but a cool, calm, calculated determination has enveloped the village. Winning a semi-final is no longer an impossible dream. It’ll take our best performance since that unforgettable day in Navan three years ago. But if you are in Dublin this Saturday keep an eye out for lightening.

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