Facing Kilkenny is a whole new ball game for Antrim hurlers: Dominic McKinley
Walsh Cup Group Two: Kilkenny v Antrim (tomorrow, Abbotstown, 2pm)
JOINT manager Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley has urged Antrim’s hurlers to embrace the challenge of facing giants of the game Kilkenny ahead of tomorrow’s Walsh Cup clash at Abbotstown.
The Saffrons opened their account with a handsome nine-point win over Westmeath last Sunday – but the Cats will undoubtedly be much tougher opposition.
“When you’re growing up this is where you want to be, these are the teams you want to play against,” said McKinley.
“I’d say our players will embrace it. They showed a good attitude last weekend against Westmeath and if we can carry that same attitude into this weekend we’d be happy.
“It’s about setting ourselves up for the first League match against London, everything is geared towards that.”
This season's National League campaign is an undoubted priority for the Ulster champions.
There were high hopes that last season's panel, under PJ O'Mullan jr, would be good enough to get back into the top flight - but the wheels came off at home to Carlow and they never quite recovered.
When PJ resigned prior to the Championship, a new management team of McKinley, Terence McNaughton, Gary O'Kane and Neal Peden was assembled and while they lost a Christy Ring final to Meath, gaining promotion in 2017 was always the county hurlers' main goal.
In reaching for that goal, there is no better, more daunting test for Antrim than facing Brian Cody's Kilkenny side.
The Cats, fielding an U21 side, eased to an opening Walsh Cup group win over DCU [0-21 to 0-12] in Dunmore last Thursday night.
The last time McKinley and Terence McNaughton were in charge of the Antrim seniors [the late 2000s], they caused a major upset by beating the Leinster giants in the first round of the Walsh Cup in Freshford.
Jackie Tyrell, Richie Power, Eddie Brennan and Richie Hogan were among Cody’s side that lost on a 2-15 to 1-17 scoreline to the Ulstermen on January 20 2008.
Karl McKeegan bagged 1-1 and Liam Watson racked up 1-8 in the shock victory.
Neil McManus, Simon McCrory and Paddy McGill are the three remaining survivors in the current squad who played in Freshford nine years ago.
Antrim went on to win the Walsh Cup, beating Offaly in the final.
So far, McKinley is happy with the attitude and commitment the 2017 squad is showing as they count the days to their NHL opener with London on February 12.
“We’re happy for the players to get the win against Westmeath. We’re just putting in the structures. The players are the ones who are putting in the effort and the hard work and improving their fitness levels.
“Maybe that win will give them a wee bit of belief and to show them that with better fitness levels and better attitude you can get a lot better.”
Antrim’s front trio of Ciaran Clarke, Conor Johnston and Niall McKenna bagged a combined 1-10 during last Sunday’s win over Westmeath in Kinnegad.
“We haven’t beaten Westmeath for nine or 10 years so from that point of view it was important,” said McKinley.
“We’re trying to catch up with them because we’re still below them, and that’s being realistic.
“But we don’t want to go overboard because we’ve beaten Westmeath. We want to remain focussed in what we’re doing. I think the players believe a bit more in what we’re doing too.”
McKinley hinted that there wouldn’t be many changes to the side that won at the weekend.
“We’ll be going with the same foundation, plus adding one or two players.”
Meanwhile, Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels is still “four or five weeks away” from an Antrim return.
The talented Dunloy ace is still making his way back to full fitness after undergoing hip surgery that ruled him out of the 2016 campaign.
“'Shorty' is at the hurling stage now. He’s hurling two nights a week. His fitness is good and his hurling is good. You’re looking at four or five weeks but that will be left to professional people to make that decision.”