Focus on hurling could be key as Slaughtneil duel with Ballycran in Ulster semi-final
AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Slaughtneil (Derry) v Ballycran (Down) (tomorrow, Corrigan Park, 2.30pm)
SLAUGHTNEIL won back-to-back Ulster titles while fighting on two fronts so now, with no football to distract them, the Derry club’s hurlers are short-priced favourites to make it three in-a-row this year.
Even if the Slaughtneil footballers hadn’t lost at the quarter-final stage in Derry, Ballycran would have gone into tomorrow’s semi-final as underdogs and they will be well aware of the task that faces them at Corrigan Park.
The Down champions beat Portaferry to capture their first county title in three years the same day that Slaughtneil saw off Banagher to complete a six in-a-row in Derry, equalling the record set by Kevin Lynch’s between 1972 and 1977 in the process.
Three days later, the five in-a-row chasing footballers lost to Coleraine in a replay and since then the sole focus of the club’s dual players (13 of the side that featured in this year’s county hurling final play both codes) has been hurling.
Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane has enjoyed the rare luxury of having complete access to his panel over the past three weeks and he has noticed an increase in the players’ energy levels going into tomorrow’s game.
“From the dual players’ point of view, their workrate has been eased,” said Antrim native McShane.
“They never would have missed training anyway but they are coming to training now and there’s a lot more energy about them because they are getting a chance to rest in between sessions, they’re getting days off and they are getting days to work on their gym programme.
“There is an upside and a downside to losing in the football. We were very used to winning and we were able to look after the workload but this year it’s a bit different and hopefully we’ll see a more energetic performance come Sunday in comparison to what we had through the Derry championship when the lads were going at both codes.”
McShane was without Karl McKaigue for the hurling final while Brendan Rodgers, who had been nursing a foot injury, was introduced as a substitute. Both should start tomorrow and McShane reports a clean bill of health in his squad.
“Thank God we have a clean bill of health and a full panel to pick from,” he said.
“We haven’t had that for quite some time so we’re delighted. The injuries that we had have had time to get cleared up and the biggest problem now is selecting the starting 15. It’s a bit of a headache but it’s a nice headache to have.”
Winning the league in Derry meant that Slaughtneil progressed straight to the semi-final. They got past a determined Kevin Lynch’s effort by a single point and then had eight points to spare over Banagher in the final.
“We had two tough games in Derry against Kevin Lynch’s and Banagher,” said McShane.
“To be honest, we wouldn’t have been happy with our performances in those games but we took a long break after the All-Ireland semi-final and we maybe didn’t get as much hurling done in preparation for the Derry championship as we should have.
“Thankfully we managed to get ourselves through it and we’ve got a lot of work done over the last three or four weeks and we are in a better place now. We’d certainly be looking for an improvement in our performance.”
Meanwhile, Portaferry had three games in the Down championship. In the round-robin stage, there were victories over Ballygalget (by a point) and Portaferry (by seven). They met Portaferry again in the final, a much tighter affair which Ballycran won thanks to two goals from the influential Conor Woods.
With the likes of Woods, Brett and Scott Nicholson, Michael Hughes, Steven Keith and Sean Ennis adding experience, manager Gary Savage has a well-seasoned and capable group of players at his disposal. Ballycran have won this competition three times, that’s one more than their Derry opponents, and Slaughtneil manager McShane expects a thorough examination tomorrow as the sides battle it out for the right to meet the Antrim champions (either Cushendall or Loughgiel) in the November 11 final.
“They are a very good side, that’s why they are the Down champions,” he said.
“We played them in 2015 and we had a real battle with them and thankfully got over the line. They have introduced a few younger players to the time, guys that have come through successful Ballycran minor teams and they have changed the dynamic of the team.
“They are a lot more energetic now and they pay a different brand of hurling; a very fast-moving brand of hurling.
“They are a very, very good team and they will be a very difficult opponent. No matter who you play from Down, whether it’s Ballycran, Ballygalget or Portaferry, you’re going to get a battle and we’re expecting nothing less on Sunday.
“Our total focus is on this game and we know what we’re up against. We are going to have to produce a big performance to make sure we get through.”
Without an Ulster title since Portaferry’s triumph in 2014, Down are due to make an impact at Ulster level but this is a difficult task for Gary Savage’s men. With experience and class throughout the side and hurling their sole focus, Slaughtneil should win this semi-final and turn their focus to the Antrim champions in the provincial decider.