Johnnies and the ‘Dall start as favourites, but don’t rule out an upset Senior Hurling Championship

Quarter-Final Preview 

Same old – same old as Johnnies and the ‘Dall start as favourites

By Brendan McTaggart

The race for Big Ears has reached the business end.  It’s time to put up or…..well, find yourself watching the semis on Facebook.  Two quarter-finals on Saturday afternoon with Cushendall and Rossa along with St John’s and St Galls.  Knockout hurling, just because this year’s championship hasn’t been exciting enough already.

The ‘Group of Death’ swung this way and that.  In the end, it was as many expected.  Dunloy progression to the last four with three battling for two spots.  We all know the last three matchdays showed it was everything but as straight forward as just that.

The echo’s of Eminiem’s hit from back in the day ‘Real Slim Shady’ was running through my head as I left Corrigan Park last Sunday.

“Would the real Dunloy, please stand up, please stand up.”

The Cuchullains looked like they were back to their devastating best.  Four goals later and they had 11 points to spare over a very dangerous St Johns side.  The Johnnies for their part were disappointing.  They coughed up turnovers in dangerous positions.  Against a Dunloy team who had their backs to the wall, the Corrigan Park men stuttered.  There was no fluency, nothing was going to hand and as the game progressed, they made life difficult for themselves.  A lot of this could be down to how Dunloy pressed and harried on the day.  They showed impressive intensity and controlled the contest for the majority of the game.

St Johns will be looking for a reaction.

Conor Johnston had to come off with what looked like a hamstring injury, Peter McCallin with a knock also.  The Johnnies management will be sweating over their fitness levels ahead of their match against St Galls. 

Finding a permanent home for Domhnall Nugent within the starting 15 is a conundrum needing answered also.  My opinion – keep him on the ’40.  Brilliant in the air, a massive physical presence and the touch of an angel.  Nugent is the key for any St John’s success not just with his own prowess but how he can bring others into play.  I’d put Michael Bradley into that category also.  St John’s played him deeper against Dunloy but he looked more threatening when he was in the thick of the action at the scoring end.

St Galls realistically have achieved their first target of the championship.  A quarter-final berth would always have been a minimum requirement for Chris Dornan’s men and after their win against Naomh Éanna on match day one, it would have taken a freak series of results for that not to happen.  Defeats against Loughgiel and Cushendall followed and after a brief chat with Dorny last weekend, the Milltown Row Azzuri have been ravaged with injuries – as many as eight or nine first team players missing their defeat against Dornan’s native Cushendall. 

With a full 15 out, I’d expect St Galls to give St Johns their fill of it and more.  But six of those missing the last day are long term injuries and include the likes of Karl Stewart, Tomás and Lorcan O’Ciarain, Conor Burke with Niall O’Neill rated as doubtful.  Mark Napier, CJ McGrouty, Sean Burke and Aodhan Gallagher are expected to make a return to the famous blue jersey and will be sure to bolster the St Galls men.

Anything other than a St Johns win here will be deemed as a shock.  I fully expect the Corrigan Park men to progress to the last four and a mouth-watering meeting with Loughgiel.

Since their opening day loss to Loughgiel, the Ruairi’s have quietly been gathering momentum and playing their way into form and contention.  I hear what you’re shouting, who said they were ever out of it, but if you’re going to get chinned at any stage then the first match in a round robin isn’t a bad way to go – as Cushendall have shown for the last three years now and gone on to reach the final in each of those campaigns.

If anything, the Ruairi’s have evolved this season.  More fresh, youthful legs in a team burgeoning with experience but they look to have a more mobile unit to complement the brilliance of McManus and McGill in attack.  Niall McCormick has shown in the last two seasons he has all the ability in the world and a partnership with Eoghan Campbell in midfield could strike a winning chord.  As does Ryan McCambridge on the half back line.  When Cushendall reached the All-Ireland final in 2016, McCambridge was one of their best performers and did so in defence.  His performance against Sarsfields in Páirc Tailteann was bordering heroic while the rock that the ‘Dall is built upon is Paddy Burke.  A player who has developed into one of the best in the county over the past two years, the Ruairi’s centre half can lead and dictate. 

Rossa finally got the win their championship performances have deserved and when it mattered most.  Last weekend was billed as winner takes all in their group and Colly Murphy’s men duly delivered against Ballycastle.  Goals the difference on the day with Gerard Walsh, Deaglan Murphy and a brace from substitute Thomas Morgan putting the Jeremiah’s into the quarter’s with eight points to spare.

Rossa had Aodhan O’Brien back in the starting 15 last day out and there’s no doubt massive addition.  His displays for the Jeremiah’s in 2019 caught the eye of the Antrim management team and he didn’t look out of place in a saffron shirt and a midfield partnership with Seaghan Shannon that works on paper – graft and guile.

Rossa have had the senior football championship to contend with and a massive win against Lámh Dhearg on Wednesday night means their interest is furthered.  Playing Wednesday and Sunday for the last number of weeks will eventually take it’s toll.  Rossa will hope that ‘eventually’ won’t be on Saturday.

The Shaw’s Road men have come through the fabled ‘group of death’ and battles in both codes.  They will be battle hardened and ready for the fight against Cushendall.  The Ruairi’s since their opener against the Shamrocks have had things all their own way.  To say they haven’t been tested would be doing St Galls and Naomh Éanna an injustice but Rossa have had tougher battles to reach this stage.

Cushendall start as favourites.  You know it, I know it and the birds in the air know it but they will need to be on their game against a Rossa team who have been almost tactically perfect in their three group games.  The Jeremiah’s have ball winners, match winners and individual geniuses in their starting 15 but so have Cushendall. 

It could be the experience of the ‘Dall that wins the day for them but this promises to be a cracking match.  They played last year in the championship with Cushendall making serene progress to the last four.  I don’t see the same serenity but I do see Cushendall progressing to a meeting with Dunloy in the last four.

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