Allianz Hurling League Division One – Group B
Antrim vs Dublin – Saturday May 22 – Parnell Park, Dublin
Throw in: 5pm
Referee: Sean Cleere (Kilkenny)
By Brendan McTaggart
The difference between Division Two and One, as a fan you travel to games in the top tier with hope rather than expectation. This year feels different. The hope is still there, it never leaves but what we hope for differs. Last year there was an expectancy for Antrim to at least make the league final, this year the expectancy is performance levels and a hope they give a good account of themselves. So far, Antrim have delivered that in spades.
A monumental win against Clare and while they didn’t get any points last Sunday in Nowlan Park, once again they showed that Antrim hurling is on the up. Three goals against Kilkenny and it’s no exaggeration to say they could have had the same again on another day. Only for some goalkeeping brilliance, cynical defending and the width of a crossbar, Darren Gleeson’s men could have added another scalp to their collection.
The graft, the desire and the intensity shown by all players involved was incredible. Where they might have caught Clare on the hop two weeks ago however, Kilkenny were in no mood for the same to happen them. Antrim won the lions share of ball in the middle sector against Brian Lohan’s men whether that was through high ball or in rucks. It was the single most impressive factor of that 70 minutes in Corrigan Park. Kilkenny were a different proposition. Antrim were found wanting and it’s mainly how the Cats turned the screw when they needed to. Winning possession from poc outs and putting Antrim on the back foot.
The difference in class of opposition is night and day from the previous two league seasons. The movement of Kilkenny and how they made the ball work for them along with their speed of thought was on a different level. Slick, accuracy, correct decision more often than not yet Antrim pushed them all the way in a barnstorming second half. Trailing by eight at half time, Donal Og might have been sharpening his pen. Antrim had other ideas.
When the scores were tied 1-13 to 2-10, I couldn’t help but give a little laugh to myself in the press box. Honestly, it does your heart good to see our team rub shoulders with the best of the best. James McNaughton’s performance, especially in the second half was breath-taking. He has that ability to evade challenges, bounce off tackles and find a yard of space. With his speed that yard quickly becomes two and three. He wasn’t quite at the races against Clare but he showed his class in Nowlan Park. Six white flags, four from play, the young Shamrock must wish he could play in Nowlan Park every week. Eoghan Campbell another player who has run himself into the ground so far while Gerard Walsh doesn’t look out of place at full back that’s for sure. I still prefer him at wing half where he can break tackles and chip in with a few long range scores but the Rossa man has been one of Gleeson’s top performers so far this season.
Two points from two games, if it was offered to me a month ago I would have taken your hand off for it. The Dubs are in a similar situation. They were defeated by Brian Cody’s men on the opening day of the League season before they comfortably saw off the challenge of Laois. There’s the warning every Saffron fan should take heed off. Laois themselves are no slouches and while they are no longer under the tutelage of Eddie Brennan, ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett is a top manager himself.
This is a dress rehearsal for the championship encounter on 26th June in Pairc Tailteann when after Antrim’s heroics in the McDonagh Cup in 2020, they make a welcome return to the Leinster Championship and the Liam McCarthy competition. That may only be five weeks away but Antrim have three huge games between now and then before they can consider or prepare for that match in Navan.
The hope is Antrim can maintain their performance levels they have shown thus far. That is an incredible ask given what they’ve come through in the past two weeks. Playing in Division One is both physically and mentally fatiguing. Playing in Division One three weekends in succession will take its toll. The team hasn’t been released as yet but I’d be surprised if it’s unchanged again. Options are available.
Conor and Ciaran Johnston both came off the bench against Kilkenny with Eoin O’Neill. Shea Shannon and Domhnal Nugent were introduced along with Phelim Duffin in defence. Dan McCloskey has been introduced in the past two matches also with a hugely important contribution in the win over Clare. Winning the match sealing free deep in injury time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him regain a spot in the starting 15 also. The strength in depth is there, a proud sight for any Antrim gael. Gleeson and his backroom team have a tough time picking the match day squad never mind a starting 15 such is the quality and talent available in this current squad.
While sitting in Nowlan Park last Sunday, it was a chance to evaluate just how far Antrim have come. Last year after two league matches, the Saffrons had defeated Wicklow on a less than desirable pitch in the Garden County where Joe Maskey helped fix the netting in one of the goals before seeing off Mayo the following week in Loughgiel. Fast forward 15 months later give or take and we’ve lowered the Banner and frightened the Cats.
The Dubs are next as the journey continues.