Antrim hurlers face ultimate test against wounded Offaly in Tullamore
Joe McDonagh Cup Round Three: Offaly v Antrim (today, Tullamore, 3pm)
IF the Joe McDonagh Cup has taught us anything this year it is to expect the unexpected. Nobody imagined Antrim would dismiss Kerry with such ease in Dunloy on the opening day – and nobody expected Kerry to rout a fancied Westmeath side the next day.
Laois are the ones whose form isn't fluctuating in this summer's intriguing round robin series – not yet, at least - after edging out Offaly and winning by six points at home to Antrim a fortnight ago.
Offaly's woes are well documented.
After losing their Division 1B status in March – averaging a meagre 17 points per game - the Faithful County have suffered back-to-back McDonagh Cup defeats and are perilously close to dropping down another Championship tier in 2020.
After being beaten out the gates by Westmeath on May 18, Kevin Martin's 18-month reign as senior manager was brought to an end, with former county hurler Joachim Kelly taking over fire-fighting duties in a county that seems permanently ablaze.
Other managers who were tasked with turning water into wine down in the Faithful County were Ollie Baker (2011-13), Brian Whelahan (2013-15), Eamonn Kelly (2015-16), Kevin Ryan (2016-17) and Kevin Martin (2017-19).
Offaly's problems run deeper than a couple of disputed team selections which prompted former great Brian Whelahan to declare that a 20-year plan was needed to arrest the county's dramatic fall.
Joachim Kelly, who played at midfield in the 1989 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Antrim, is the next short-term answer in Offaly.
Regardless of how it all works out in Offaly over the coming seasons, a managerial change is probably not what the Antrim management team wanted to hear as they enter O'Connor Park in Tullamore this afternoon.
Kelly will almost certainly lean heavily on some good old-fashioned Offaly patriotism - urging the players to put some pride back into that famous tricolour jersey.
From that point of view, Antrim have their work cut out today.
If Neal Peden's men are to come through this most testing of exams this afternoon and revive their hopes of contesting the cup later this month, Antrim's hurlers will have to win the battle to earn the right to hurl in Offaly's backyard.
It goes without saying Antrim need to be wary of Offaly's threat of them having hurled at a higher level this year despite the heavy League beatings they took from Waterford, Galway and Dublin.
The Saffrons got a snap-shot of Division 1B opposition in their last outing against a very slick Laois side who perhaps boast the best attacking unit in the McDonagh Cup in 2019.
Antrim are quite a youthful side - especially in defence – but they'll have to learn the lessons in double quick time to stand any chance of reaching the June 30 decider.
Lesson number one emanating from O'Moore Park a fortnight ago: slow starts kill you.
Lesson number two: take your chances.
Antrim allowed Laois to race into a 10-point lead by the halfway mark and although the home side's ‘keeper Enda Rowland had one of those days where he could catch flies, Antrim still missed too many gilt-edged opportunities to really push Laois in the final quarter.
Captain Conor McCann suffered a knee injury against Laois but is expected to resume his ball-winning duties at full-forward, while Nigel Elliott and Eoghan Campbell – introduced at half-time and the 45th minute, respectively – are pushing hard for starting places.
One man whose position is absolutely secure is Keelan Molloy.
The Dunloy attacker has the ability and temperament to leave his mark on the inter-county stage after hitting seven points from play across Antrim's two Championship games to date.
Ryan McCambridge was also among the scorers against Laois, so there is plenty to be optimistic about as Antrim head for Tullamore.
Joachim Kelly has made six changes to the side that collapsed against Westmeath with Kilcormac/Killoughey's highly-rated Peter Geraghty being named at wing-forward with Cillian Kiely, Shane Kinsella, Aidan Treacy, Paddy Murphy and Kevin Connolly the other new faces in the Offaly line-up as they try to avoid being sucked into the Christy Ring next season.
Joe Bergin, as ever, will be the one Offaly forward Antrim have to contain.
If Antrim can tighten up at the back, they can edge it. But there will be a battle to be won first before a hurling match breaks out in Tullamore today.
Offaly (SH v Antrim): E Cahill; B Conneely, D Shortt, P Camon (captain); C Kiely, S Kinsella, M Egan; A Treacy, P Murphy; C Egan, J Bergin, P Geraghty; S Dooley, O Kelly, K Connolly.
Antrim (SH v Offaly): R Elliott; S Rooney, J Dillon, P Duffin; P Burke, C Boyd, M Donnelly; N McManus, N McKeague; J McNaughton, R McCambridge; K Molloy; Ciaran Clarke, Conor McCann, Eoin O'Neill