Make or break in Senior Championship

Bathashacks Senior Hurling Championship Quarter-Finals

Brendan McTaggart previews the Bathshack Senior Hurling Championship matches this weekend.

The jockeying for position has finished and the battle lines have been drawn.  A double-header, a head-scratcher, a rethink and eventually a change of plans but the bottom line is we have two quarter-finals tomorrow and knockout championship in the race for the Volunteer Cup.

It’s been a week from hell for those trying to schedule these fixtures, a task I wouldn’t enjoy.  I was told once that it’s impossible to please everyone, I think that’s what the ‘think tank’ behind the fixtures were faced with.  From a doubleheader in Dunsilly, we’ve moved to one game at 4:30pm in Dunsilly and the second at Portglenone under the first class floodlights of Pairc Ui Cheallagh.  It’s not the ideal scenario and doesn’t allow for attendances at all three games for those who would be that way inclined and let’s face it, there is more than a few.  They have a choice to make to embrace the “Nothing Beats Being There” slogan used for so long.  Unfair?  Probably.  What was the alternatives?  Move the quarter-finals to the Monday evening in separate floodlit venues and allow the All-Ireland ‘Sunday’ to remain free and the camogs have their rightful day in the sun?  I’m not sure if it was ever an option.  A Monday night for senior hurling championship games would be a rarity but it could have been problem solved.

Anyhow, there’s no point in looking at what could have been or what we might think should have been.  The hand the four clubs have been dealt with is:

Naomh Eanna vs Cushendall @ Dunsilly.  4:30pm

St Johns vs Loughgiel @ Portglenone. 7:30pm

To say Cushendall will come into their game with Naomh Eanna as strong favourites is an understatement. Last year was the first time in an incredibly long, long time the Ruairi’s haven’t made at least the semi-final of the championship.  They fell at this hurdle to Rossa a little over 12 months ago and while it caused more than a few ripples through Cushendall, they’ve got the reaction they were after since.

They have won the League and Reserve Championship while runner-up to the Shamrocks in the Feis at a foggy Cushendun. They finished second in Group 2 on score difference but have been playing their way through the gears in the process.  Against Dunloy they could have won it at the end and as Colum Thompson described superbly in the recent ‘DallCast’, they had to beat St John’s twice.  They got off to a cracking start before St John’s clawed their way back into the game and made Cushendall dig a little deeper.  Six goals and a comfortable win against Tir na nOg followed and the Ruairi’s are in the mix once again.  

They have a more fluent look to their side this year with runners in the middle third as they look to youth and experience.  They have the ability to break lines at speed with Scott Walsh and Ruairi McCollam from half back, Alec Delargy in midfield along with Fergus McCambridge and Niall McCormick up top, Cushendall look like a team evolving.  They still have the tried and trusted, the experience and Ruairi legends Neil McManus, Arron Graffin, the Burke brothers and Eoghan Campbell while Ryan McCambridge has played in defence this year, arguably his most efficient position.

For the men from Hightown, this might be a step into the unknown but an undoubted sign they are still on the rise.  They have acquitted themselves well in Division One this year and while some may have considered their win against Ballycastle a shock, it’s a win that has been coming such has been the progression of Naomh Eanna in recent times.  Goals from Eddie O’Connor, Philly Curran and Daniel Lowry ensuring they would record a first win at senior championship level.  Having suffered defeats to Rossa and Loughgiel previously, the Hightown Road men got the win and a debut at this stage.  All without the services of leading marksman John McGoldrick, a player who has flirted with the Antrim senior squad but who’s season has been shortened with a cruciate injury.  They will also be without Eoin Conlon and Cormac Jennings on Sunday but this is a free hit for them.  They will come into the game with no pressure and with that can come the freedom to express themselves. 

Rian Gillen is an excellent defender on the edge of his own square while Cormac Ross, Mark Donaghy and Joe Maskey make-up an excellent half back line.  Philly Curran has seen it all in a Naomh Eanna shirt while Killian Jennings is an excellent forward who will cause problems.

It’s a massive occasion for Naomh Eanna and added to for their management as Michael McCambridge looks to bring about the downfall of his home-town club.  Hurling can throw up these fateful scenarios on occasions but this looks to be a step too far for the Glengormley men. 

St John’s v Loughgiel Shamrocks

The second quarter-final is mouth-watering and the one that immediately jumped out at me after the groups were settled last weekend.  St John’s and Loughgiel will travel to Portglenone to face each other underf the floodlights and a place in the last four at stake.  This has all the makings of humdinger!  

St John’s have, like Cushendall, steadily improved as this championship campaign has progressed.  Against Tir na nOg, they gave the Randalstown men a 12 point lead before winning by eight in the end.  Against Cushendall, they again started slowly and while they fought back, the Ruairi’s finished strongly.  Last day out, they hit 1-26 and still got beat.  There isn’t many teams who will hit that type of scoring and come away in second place but such is the talent in attack for the Johnnies, they have it in their locker to hit such scores.

Aaron Bradley, Donal Carson, Michal Dudley, Conor Johnston and a returning Peter McCallin will cause plenty of problems while Shea Shannon and Michael Bradley in midfield have the makings of an excellent partnership.  In defence, they struggled to contain the Cuchullains but then again, they aren’t the first side to have said the same thing.  They brought Jimmy Peoples into a sweeping position and it didn’t work but the changes they did make defensively last Sunday did have an impact.  Conall Morgan dropping into full back and Ciaran Johnston coming on as a sweeper all giving St John’s options.

Loughgiel come into the quarter-final a sort of wounded animal.  They were disappointing against Rossa last Sunday against Rossa and know they need to improve to progress in this year’s championship.  They are a side in rebuild mode as they look to bring in fresh blood and the prospects are there on the conveyor belt at Fr Healy Park.  Christy McGarry, Paul Boyle and Rian McMullan certainly have huge futures in front of them and experiencing their first full year of senior hurling while they have the talents of James McNaughton, Dan and Tony McCloskey to call upon while Declan McCloskey is burgeoning a reputation for his displays on the half back line over the past couple of seasons.

They will be missing Tiarnan Coyle for the quarter-final tie with the Shamrock’s defender seeing red against Rossa last weekend and they could bring in the experience of Odhran Laverty to help their cause.

They say a wounded animal is dangerous and there’s no doubting Loughgiel would have been hurting after last weekend.  Sunday is a huge test for them and it will be interesting to see how they react to the set-back of defeat.  They will certainly be looking for a reaction but then again, this is Loughgiel against St John’s.  Take Two.  Last year, this was match of the championship.  A semi-final that saw goals galore, extra time, heroic displays and drama aplenty.  No, that is not sensationalist journalism, it was that good.  If Sunday’s game reaches anywhere near this scale, it will be a cracker.  It may take additional time again but I can see the Johnnies making the semi’s.

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