Antrim looking to keep the foot on Carlow's throat in Christy Ring Cup clash
Christy Ring Cup round one: Carlow v Antrim (today, 3pm, Netwatch Cullen Park)
AS it was in the beginning, shall it be in the end? There may come a challenge from Kildare but general wisdom has these two back together in Croke Park on June 10.
Not that either side will afford themselves the luxury of thinking like that this afternoon. For Antrim, it will be about proving themselves. For Carlow, there may be some small element of revenge on the mind.
The Barrowsiders would consider themselves as having been out of Division 1B for too long now, just as Antrim did prior to their Division 2A final in Newry a few weeks back.
It was the Saffrons that emerged from a fierce battle at Páirc Esler – a venue with which Carlow were deeply unhappy – to secure the glamour of games with Dublin, Galway and Limerick next year, leaving Carlow to face a fifth season adrift of the semi-elite.
This will be their first appearance in hurling’s second tier competition since they beat Down in the final eight years ago. And for a generation regarded as golden, that is a major disappointment.
It is what it is, though, and as Antrim skipper Simon McCrory admits, their fires will have been stoked by the gutsy way in which the 16-in-a-row Ulster champions won that League decider.
“Carlow need no motivation after what we did to them in Newry. It’s always a real battle with them, a puck of a ball. That will have been their motivation for the last two or three weeks’ training,” said the St John’s man.
“It’s been nip and tuck with us and Carlow in recent years.
“It’s going to be one hell of a battle for us to even get close to a Christy Ring final but that’s our target to get back there.
“The main thing is not to take our eyes off Saturday. It’s a huge game for Antrim hurling, to be honest.”
A puck of a ball indeed. They’ve met each other ten times in the last ten years and of those games, six have been decided by three points or less.
Prior to that League final, Antrim hadn’t beaten Carlow since 2013. They drew at Dr Cullen Park earlier in the year in a physical encounter that saw the hosts finish with 13 men.
Paul Coady’s laser eye from frees will be crucial for Colm Bonnar’s side, while they will be hoping Craig Wall is available after he missed the League decider.
They will do well to match the slickness of the Antrim attack in recent weeks. Armagh might have represented disappointing opposition last Sunday but that takes nothing from the slickness and sharpness of Antrim’s stickwork.
It was Ciaran Clarke that caused all the bother in their first meeting and then Neil McManus who was on song the second day, while Conor Johnston hit 3-5 from play in a brilliant display in last weekend’s Ulster final.
“The forwards are going really well, Conor Johnston, [Ciaran] Clarkey, Neil McManus, Shorty [Paul Shiels], all going really well,” says McCrory.
“We have a really tight, collective group, boys that really want to be here for Antrim hurling. That makes training really productive.
“You’re not looking around to see who’s going to be at training, everybody’s there every night. That’s where we want to be and that’s why the performance levels you’re seeing are progressing, slowly. We’re not the finished product but we’re moving closer to where we want to be.”
It may not be knockout hurling but having broken a winless run against Carlow that stretched back to 2013, Antrim will be determined to keep their foot on the throat.