The West is Awake but Old Firm final beckons… Senior Hurling Championship

Semi-Final Preview

By Brendan McTaggart

Four rounds of matches later, drama aplenty and we’ve reached the last four.  A last four with one notable absentee.  Before we look ahead to the two games on Sunday, it would be madness not to acknowledge the fact Cushendall haven’t reached this stage of the championship for the first time since…..well, answers on a postcard.  I have no idea and I’ve asked a few natives of the Ruairi’s and they struggled too. 

A shift in power has been spoken off.  In 1980 Joe Connolly spoke of the west being ‘Awake’ when Galway won the All-Ireland, maybe the west of Belfast is beginning to arouse from a slumber of sorts as well.  A first senior hurling semi-final for Rossa in 15 years.  An incredible stat but a sign of the times and the work being put in on the Shaw’s Road.  A fantastic group of players, there’s no doubting that and Colly Murphy has honed their talents for the past two years and they are where they are on merit. 

Against the Ruairi’s they had their homework done.  Another tick and pat on the back to Murphy and his backroom team.  A tireless performance of work rate, graft and the Boot of Beatty.  Not quite the Hand of God but maybe the GAA’s own version.  Two second half goals after moving to the full forward line and Stephen Beatty, the man who could rival Stuart Armstrong for the nicest hair in sports, has kicked the Jeremiah’s into the last four.

Loughgiel’s Calum McKendry in action againt St John’s Ciaran Johnston in last year’s SHC round robin at Fr Healy Park.

The Johnnies have been here before and came up against Cushendall, this year they have different opposition.  A hard-earned win over St Gall’s in the quarter-finals where they had four points to spare over the Milltown Row Azurri and Michael Johnston’s charges have a date with the Shamrocks.  Some will look at their performance against their west Belfast neighbours and Loughgiel’s against the same opposition and make their assumptions from there.  But this is championship hurling where anything could happen.  The Johnnies have been knocking on the door of finals day for the past three years, they have had one foot in that door on more than one occasion – maybe they’re timing their run to perfection?

A reshuffled pack after a disappointing performance against Dunloy in the last round of group fixtures saw Domhnall Nugent do a man marking job on Anton McCaffrey.  They have had their own injury concerns in recent weeks but Michail Dudley nearing a return will be a welcome sight to the Johnnies management team.

It took a goal from Andy McGowan and a penalty save from ‘keeper Declan Cregan and the Corrigan Park men are on the verge of a first senior county final since 1994.  They have the small matter of 20 time Volunteer Cup champions Loughgiel standing in their way.

For what it’s worth, the Shamrock’s haven’t lifted ‘Big Ears’ since 2016.  I hear you’re shouts, what’s four year.  Well, it’s the longest gap they’ve had from claiming the top spot in the county since bridging 21 year drought in 2010. 

There’s the hope the Johnnies needed.

TC and Pete battle it out in the Loughgiel rain last year. Their paths will surely cross again on Sunday

Looking closer, Hugh McCann’s side are the only team with a 100% record so far.  Three group matches, three wins, jobs a good’un thus far.  And when you have the talents of James McNaughton, Eddie McCloskey and Shan McGrath in your ranks, you have more than a punchers chance.

A workmanlike performance against Cushendall in the opening round preceded comfortable victories against St Galls and Naomh Éanna.  The only blip on the record is losing the services of Benny McCarry.  The Loughgiel forward had made a welcome return to the Shamrocks setup but his season has been ended with those three letters no athlete wants to hear.  ACL.  They have plenty of talent in reserves with their conveyor belt of talent coming through the minor ranks for the past two season but nothing beats experience at this stage of the championship.  The Shamrocks have that in abundance.

Wishing the Shamrocks good luck in Sunday’s semi-final

A possible subplot to this could be the contest of Neilly McGarry and Domhnall Nugent, should the Johnnies management use their versatile star man in that position.  Mouth watering.  Akin to watching Liam Watson and Ryan McNulty do battle last year in the opening round of group games at Fr Healy Park.  A contest that Loughgiel won but St Johns were well in and but for some indiscipline, they could have taken the scalp they’re yearning for in the shadows of Black Mountain.  Loughgiel start as favourites but I fully expect a different animal in St Johns to come out and push the Shamrocks all the way. 

Gerard Walsh in action against Keelan Molloy in the round robin game at Rossa Park

Reining champions Dunloy have reached the last four unbeaten, unbroken and unbowed.  Somehow.  That matters not at this stage however.  Two ‘ropey’ draws where they lost a couple of their championship ‘lives’ preceded a much-improved performance against St Johns when the pressure was on.  The Cuchullains were faced with all three scenarios and it really was win or bust but they knew that a win would put them into the semi-finals and win they did with a bit to spare.

Keelan Molloy imperious, Paul Shiels dominant and Ryan McGarry outstanding.  Job done for Gregory O’Kane’s team and they now have a rematch with Rossa.  I made promise I wouldn’t mention the injury time from their match in the group stage but it’s impossible to not speak of it when looking ahead.  Shorty’s brilliance from 30 yards and Chrissy McMahon’s gargantuan score pulled Dunloy from the brink.  Sunday’s match is mouth-watering and it is not often we get a chance for ‘take two’ of such a contest so soon but that’s what we have.  God bless this championship format.

The Jeremiah’s have been burning the candle at both ends of the GAA in recent weeks and word coming from Rossa Park, is they are now counting the costs of pushing for senior honours in hurling and football.  Michael Armstrong pulled his hamstring against Cushendall and missed the defeat to Cargin on Tuesday night in the football quarter-final but they could be without the services of Gerard Walsh (ankle), Stephen Shannon (dead leg) and Ciaran Orchin.  The physio team will be busy to get the walking wounded ready for Sunday.

Deaglan Murphy in action against Paul Shorty Shiels in the round robin game three weeks ago

Dunloy on the other hand, while also fighting on both fronts and having added reserve titles in both hurling and football this week have no such problems.  Conor McKinley missed the vast majority of the group stages but ‘Woody’ is nearing fitness and has thrown his name into the mix for a starting place on Sunday.  A welcome sight for the Dunloy management team.

Dunloy will start as favourites, regardless of what has happened this season.  The Cuchullains are the team to beat this year and the Jeremiah’s will start as underdogs.

Prediction time.

I will get a full house at some stage this season.  Dunloy are favourites and the Rossa medical bill has just reinforced that fact.  The Jeremiah’s will have to wait for a final berth for another year at least.  I just think the Cuchullains have too much firepower.

The other semi, all signs point to a Loughgiel win given recent form and while I expect that to happen, I think this will be much closer than some are expecting.  St Johns have the firepower to do damage and if Mickey Johnston and team can get their match ups right they will push the Shamrocks all the way.

But I’m sticking my £1 on a Dunloy and Loughgiel final.

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