Cuchullains face stiff test in Ulster semi

AIB Ulster Senior Hurling Club Championship Semi-Final

Dunloy vs Ballycran (Down)

Sunday October 26 @ The Athletic Grounds, Armagh

Throw In: 2:30pm

By Brendan McTaggart

The Cuchullains get back on the championship trail tomorrow after a long wait from the county final.  It’s not the ideal scenario but let’s face it, you would rather be waiting four weeks for your next competitive game of hurling than 24 weeks.  That’s the general consensus around Dunloy as they cast their gaze and prepare for a tilt at the provincial championship. 

On Sunday, they travel to the Cathedral City and make their way to the Atheltic Grounds with the Four Seasons Cup on their mind.  In their way, Ballycran.  The Down champions reached the Ulster series by overcoming Portaferry in the Mourne County final and come into the semi with redemption on their mind.

12 months ago, the Cran caused a huge upset when they dethroned Slaughtneil at the semi-final stage.  The Derry men had seemed unstoppable until that point but Ballycran had 10 points to spare over them on the day in Corrigan Park.  Where the redemption comes in, is their performance in the final against Cushendall.  An eight point defeat but a tale of missed frees, missed goal chances and essentially a missed opportunity.  There are those who would tell you the final score flattered the Ruairi’s on the day.  They will travel to Armagh with a hunger to prove they are better than they showed on the day.

The Elliott brothers should certainly test the Ballycran defence.

Paudie Flynn at centre half is their lynchpin and orchestrates their defence with Brett and Scott Nicholson also key for the Cran.  Colum McManus will be a handful on the edge of the square, after his red card was rescinded in the Down final he’s free to start the semi while Phelim Savage, James Coyle and Conor Woods will all need to be paid attention to.

The four week break since defeating Cushendall in the county final will leave the Cuchullains with some rusty to shake off their system but they’ve been on the march for this all season.  Two years ago when they met Slaughtneil, the Cuchullains felt they were in bonus territory.  That doesn’t seem like the case now.  Two years of maturing, two years of development and Dunloy are back on the Ulster trail.

Gregory O’Kane is left with more decisions over their starting 15.  Kevin Molloy is reported to be back and available for selection after missing the county final while Gabriel McTaggart and Seaan Elliott’s performance coming off the bench turned the final in their favour in a devastating close to the Antrim final. 

Phelim Duffin and Conor McKinley have been mainstay’s in the full back line this season with Aaron Crawford and Conor Kinsella fighting for the other corner back spot.  Kevin McKeague missed the Antrim semi-final win against Loughgiel but his performance against Cushendall from centre half makes him almost undroppable.  He filled in for ‘Bunga’ at centre half and was more than an able replacement with a man of the match performance.

Paul Shiels will pull the strings from deep and allow the talents of the likes of Keelan Molloy, Conal Cunning and Nigel Elliott to do the damage in attack.  One of the key facets of the Cuchullains team however, they have match-winners everywhere.  You keep those three quiet and you have Nicky McKeague, Eoin O’Neill and Chrissy Brogan to contend with.  McTaggart’s ability to catch clean ball and work in rucks could give him the nod on the three-quarter line but it’s just one of many options O’Kane and his management team are faced with.

The two sides faced each other once in the league this year before the split, the Cuchullains taking that one with a score line of 3-18 to 2-19.  Dunloy had made a number of changes for that match and needed injury time goals from Deaglan Smith and Ronan Molloy to finish a ‘smash and grab’ in Pearse Park.

Dunloy showed against Loughgiel that they can go into the trenches if required and have the ability to rip teams apart if they are given the opportunity.  Against Cushendall, they fought fire with fire and came out on top.  On Sunday, they go in as favourites but will need to be wary of the Cran, they are and have shown in the recent past that they the capability to cause an upset.

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