Antrim will live or die by Laois test
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Laois v Antrim
GALWAY was glamour and heartbreak. Dublin was positive and frustrating. But this? This is where Antrim will live or die.
The reality in 1B has been somewhat altered this year by Dublin's dangle on the edge of what's been a top nine for several years.
Pat Gilroy may yet bring them back but for now their form leaves hurling's secondary division with an unfamiliar lopsided look that suits those at the bottom as much as those at the top.
Galway and Limerick will fight over promotion and the rest will be happy to finish out of the bottom two spots and avoid a relegation playoff, but could equally all have realistic eyes on third place.
It would be fair to say that Antrim have taken more of the early-season plaudits than Laois, yet their form lines are not dissimilar.
They've played both of what will be the top two come the end and been far from disgraced by either. They didn't exactly get close to Limerick in a 10-point loss but when you consider that they conceded 6-33 to the same opposition last year, there is room for optimism.
Like Antrim, they pushed Galway harder than would have been expected, although theirs was more of a coat-tails display than that of the Saffrons thanks to two first half goals from Conor Whelan that kept daylight the whole way.
The 16-in-a-row Ulster champions have fully integrated the likes of Joe Maskey, Gerard Walsh and Donal McKinley in these early weeks without a seam, and still managed to find another level of performance.
What they haven't quite managed is to marry the attacking end of things to a more resolute shape that is built around cutting out the concession of goals. Chrissy O'Connell has been beaten just once in the opening two games.
But they have ended up heavily reliant on Neil McManus's frees. His display against Dublin was sublime but his 0-16 wasn't added to by another starting forward, which left them agonisingly short in the end.
Ciaran Clarke's absence in attack has been significant and he is unlikely to play any part in the rest of the league campaign as he recovers from a chipped bone in his ankle.
“We set out that we'd been conceding too many goals,” said Antrim joint-manager Dominic McKinley.
“The last time we played Dublin, we conceded 4 or 5 goals. We did withdraw a bit and sometimes it's leaving our forwards short of manpower at times.
“We're working against the odds at times but we're very pleased with the forwards. Neil was exceptional that day, even outside his free-taking, but a lot of his frees were gained by other players.
“A lot of the time the forwards are two-against-one and it is difficult. That's something we need to develop is getting forward quicker and into areas that hurt other teams.
“That's something we're working at, trying to support the forwards as well as supplementing our defence to stop us conceding goals.”
Laois are in a similar mould, with Ross King contributing 0-23 to their coffers in the opening two games, and only Willie Dunphy (0-2 v Galway) and Ben Conroy (0-1 v Limerick) adding to that from the starting forward divisions, with the absence of Cha Dwyer having taken its toll in the same way Clarke's has for Antrim.
He returned to action last week for Carlow IT in the Fitzgibbon Cup and is likely to play some part in Portlaoise tomorrow, while for Antrim, Arron Graffin is set to start after getting married last weekend, while Neal McAuley and Ryan McCambridge come back into the defence and James McNaughton starts up front.
A win for Antrim would be a far bigger result than either of the two more glamorous near misses so far. And only when it's time to live or die do you really see what you're made of.
Antrim: C O'Connell; A Graffin, J Dillon, P Burke; R McCambridge, N McAuley, D Kearney; J Maskey, C McKinley; N Elliott, N McManus, D McKinley; J McNaughton, C McCann, Conor Johnston
Subs: R Elliott, M Donnelly, S Rooney, G Walsh, D Murphy, C Carson, D McGuinness, M Connolly, C Boyd, E Campbell, E O'Neill