Antrim hurlers ease into Christy Ring semi-finals at Down's expense
Christy Ring Cup Round 2A: Antrim 3-15 Down 0-12
THE hope was that Saturday’s Christy Ring clash between two old Ulster rivals would be a tight, tense and feisty affair.
But it never materialised.
There was no fire and brimstone, no broken ash, no bone-crunching tackles, no defiant roars and no need to cover the children’s eyes.
The game's temperature never rose above lukewarm and was much too placid to pass as an Ulster derby.
Reduced to 14 men on 43 minutes when Conor Johnston picked up a second booking, Antrim still cantered to a 12-point victory and out-scored their visitors 1-8 to 0-3 in those remaining 17 minutes.
Two first half penalties from wing half-back Ciaran Johnston and a late three-pointer from the lively Ciaran Clarke were the key scores for the Saffrons in breezy Cushendall on Saturday afternoon.
But the writing was on the wall for Marty Mallon’s Down team before the game even started.
Their best man-marker John McManus, free-taker Danny Toner and the in-form Paul Sheehan were all named to start but didn’t feature.
And to compound Down’s woes, young Eoghan Sands and Conor Mageean (both had flu in the build-up) clearly weren’t fully fit, while experienced centre-back Conor Woods last just 21 minutes.
The visitors were banking on Antrim suffering the ill-effects of having to play six games in six weeks, and they were also missing key men Neil McManus and Paul Shiels.
But, to Down’s disappointment, Antrim still had enough in the tank to secure a semi-final berth and a well-earned break until May 20.
Mallon, whose Down side will have a second bite at the Christy Ring cherry next weekend, was in philosophical mood afterwards.
“To be honest,” he said, “coming here with some of our best players missing was always going to be difficult.
“John McManus is the best defender in the province but he had work commitments today.
“We brought Sean Ennis in and we had to play Conor O’Prey back and Eoghan Sands shouldn’t be playing, to be fair.”
Down led by 0-3 to no score after six minutes thanks to a hat-trick of converted frees from Scott Nicholson.
And while they conceded two first-half penalties, the Ardsmen were only four points adrift at the break [2-7 to 0-9].
Rather than Down stepping on the gas when Conor Johnston was dismissed in the 43rd minute, it was Antrim who responded with greater energy and urgency.
Down held onto Antrim’s coat-tails up until the 60th minute before accepting their inevitable fate.
Mallon added: “This was a free hit today – we knew this was always going to be a massive step up. Antrim are two Leagues above us and they’ve players coming out of their ears.
“We’ve three senior clubs and we’re punching above our weight but we’ll keep going.
“Down hurling just can’t roll over and die. We were four or five points down with 10 minutes to go but Antrim were coming at us from all angles.
“Next week, we’ll go again. We’ll keep banging away at it. We’ve 20 lads in there who are committed to it.”
Antrim, in truth, were probably relieved to hear the late changes to Down’s starting line-up.
The Ulster champions never hit any great heights on Saturday, but they didn’t need to.
In the opening half, the Antrim attack found Down ‘keeper Stephen Keith in fantastic form.
The Ballycran man denied Conor Johnston in the ninth minute and he pulled off another stunning save to frustrate Ciaran Clarke after 22 minutes.
The Down defence was always creaking when Antrim pushed forward.
Poor Conor O’Prey, forced to drop into wing half-back on Saturday, had no choice but to commit two fouls that yielded two penalties in the 13th and 33rd minutes, respectively.
Ciaran Johnston went low with both of them to beat Keith, although the St John’s ace would see a third penalty come off the foot of Down’s post with two minutes of normal time remaining.
But Antrim were already home and hosed by that stage.
Antrim joint boss Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley commented: “We created three goal chances and didn’t take any of them but there were good saves for two of them… But the game was seriously scrappy.”
The match might have been instantly forgettable – but McKinley was full of praise for the gargantuan effort the Antrim players have put in over the last six weeks.
“I’ve no doubt the boys are drained, but they’re playing for their clubs tomorrow [Sunday],” he said.
“If you reflect on last weekend in Carlow, the players left at five o’clock on a Friday evening and they weren’t back home until 11 o’clock on Saturday night.
“That was that weekend gone and now they’re playing tomorrow [for their clubs] and that’s another weekend gone. It’s a telling factor on the players.”
Still, there were some memorable moments on Saturday.
Eoghan Campbell showed his undoubted class with a fabulous turn and score in the 26th minute.
Ciaran Clarke reacted best after Johnston’s red card, by hitting 1-4.
Conor McKinley ran the midfield sector. Paddy Burke swept up well at centre-back, while Simon McCrory didn’t put a foot wrong in the corner.
But the best of the bunch was John ‘Rocky’ Dillon at full-back.
He posted another imperious performance on the edge of the square that drew warm praise from ‘Woody’.
“One of the great things of playing regularly is that ‘Rocky’ has developed into an excellent player,” he said.
“Pound-for-pound, he’s probably been our best performer and he’s using his head at the right time. So there are always good things to come out of it and we also know our players a lot better.”
Michael Ennis and Declan McManus offered stubborn resistance throughout for the visitors but given their desperately thin resources, the task always looked beyond Down.
“Danny Toner is a massive loss to us, massive,” insisted Mallon.
“He hasn’t played the last few games but he’ll be fit for next week. We’ll add a few boys to it. John [McManus] will be back to it. We’ll keep going at it. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
Antrim: C O’Connell; S McCrory, J Dillon, R Diamond; E Campbell (0-2), P Burke, Ciaran Johnston (2-0, 2-0 pens); C McKinley, P McGill (0-1); M Connolly, C McCann (0-2), J McNaughton; Conor Johnston (0-1), O McFadden, C Clarke (1-7, 0-4 frees, 0-1 ’65) Subs: S Rooney for R Diamond (35, inj), N McKenna (0-2) for M Connolly (h/t), D McKernan for J McNaughton (51), C Carson for P McGill (65), J Maskey for P Burke (66)
Yellow cards: Conor Johnston (35 & 43), P McGill (45)
Red cards: Conor Johnston (43)
Down: S Keith; C Teggart, M Hughes, S Ennis; B Nicholson, C Woods, M Ennis; D Hughes, D McManus (0-3); C Mageean, M Magee, C O’Prey; E Sands (0-1), G Johnston (0-1), S Nicholson (0-7 frees) Subs: A Bell for C Woods (21, inj), O McManus for M Magee (59)
Yellow cards: C O’Prey (32), M Hughes (35), S Ennis (68), C Mageean (71)
Referee: J Keane (Galway)