Hurling and camogie

Emmet's defensive mix can see them past lively Dunloy

Slaughtneil's Chrissy McKaigue will have an important role to play as they begin their defence of the Ulster club hurling title against Dunloy. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.
Cahair O'Kane

Ulster Senior Club Hurling Championship semi-final: Robert Emmet's, Slaughtneil v Cuchullain's Dunloy (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Owenbeg)

THERE'LL be neither a Creagh Concrete lorry up the middle of Dunloy nor a congregation in Slaughtneil hall tomorrow night, but the victors will know that a significant portion of the work towards winning Ulster will have been done.

Any potential celebrations would go on ice but whoever finds themselves in the provincial final in two weeks' time will go in as considerable favourites against either Ballygalget or Lisbellaw.

Slaughtneil are the reigning holders of the Four Seasons Cup after their memorable victory over Loughgiel last year on an emotional and historic day in Armagh, and come in as unfamiliar favourites.

Rather than head to a neutral venue this time, Ulster Council sensibly decreed a toss and it came down on the side of Slaughtneil. The game will go ahead in Owenbeg after it passed a pitch inspection on Thursday.

It's been a saturated surface over the last month or so, with a number of games moved out of the north Derry venue, and that heaviness could be a factor that will suit the Oak Leaf champions.

For while they too like a firm surface that prescribes free-flowing hurling, Dunloy's sparkling attack may be even more reliant on a decent sod.

Even when they were behind against Cushendall in the first half of the Antrim final, their potential was visible. Keelan Molloy, Eoin O'Neill and Conal Cunning were causing bother with their pace, only for the finishing to let the Cuchullain's down.

But when it clicked, they wreaked havoc. 2-8 to 0-1 in the first 16 minutes of the second half was a remarkable statement from a side whose experience is largely further back the field.

Their attack starts off centrally but when Paul Shiels gets the ball in his hand, they split to the wings as the ball drops into space. It allows them to flourish and they will cause problems for any defence as long as ‘Shorty' is allowed to weave his magic.

So you can guess what Michael McShane's first port of call will be. Whether it's Meehaul McGrath or Conor McAllister that picks him up, Slaughtneil are almost certain to put a full-time tag on Shiels.

Karl McKaigue and Paul McNeill will most likely be the inside backs picking up Cunning and O'Neill, and the Emmet's duo possess a pace that Cushendall didn't have in their full-back line.

Slaughtneil came out of Derry without ever getting close to full capacity. There have been a few notable alterations since last year, not least the rotation of free-taking duty, with Brendan Rogers taking over from Cormac O'Doherty.

The latter is a minor doubt with a hand injury he picked up in the Derry football final, though in outstanding youngster Brian Cassidy there is a readymade replacement should he fail to make it.

The defensive question for Dunloy is who picks up Rogers. James McKeague's solidity is ideally suited to Sé McGuigan, while Phelim Duffin was stationed against Neil McManus the last day, where he provided a solid platform alongside Kevin McKeague and Conor McKinley.

Gregory O'Kane will hope his half-back line enjoys a similar mastery but he will be aware that the quality of his back division wasn't given as strenuous an examination as he might have expected from the Ruairi Ógs.

Slaughtneil hit Loughgiel with a huge start last year but kind of fell over the line in the end after finding their nine-point lead cut back to three in a nervy finish.

Dunloy will feel that if they avoid a similar whirlwind opening then they will have enough to continue a fine record of 10 Ulster titles from 10 attempts.

But Slaughtneil's mix of physicality and pace in defence might just be enough to shut them down sufficiently and allow Michael McShane's men to hold on to their title for another fortnight at least.

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