Hurling and camogie

Antrim hurling captain Conor McCann facing fitness race for Westmeath showdown

Antrim's Conor McCann has been a leading light in saffron this season Picture by Cliff Donaldson.

ANTRIM hurling captain Conor McCann faces a race against time to be fit for Saturday's vital Joe McDonagh clash with Westmeath in Dunloy (3pm).

The Creggan Kickhams clubman missed last weekend's memorable victory over relegation-haunted Offaly with a knee injury.

“I'm just hoping my recovery goes well this week,” said McCann.

“It's nothing serious but the games come at you quickly in the Joe McDonagh. I'll know closer to the weekend to see how my knee is then.”

McCann has excelled as Antrim's ball-winning full-forward this season but he took a heavy knock in the opening exchanges of the Laois game over a fortnight ago and although he played on until the closing stages the injury hasn't sufficiently healed.

Neal Peden's side would undoubtedly miss McCann's leadership skills and experience but as last Saturday showed there is plenty of competition for places in the Antrim attack.

Nigel Elliott was given his first start in the Joe McDonagh and took his opportunity with both hands, scoring a mesmerising goal late on. James McNaughton and Eoghan Campbell had to content themselves with places on the bench in Tullamore – but both staked a claim for a starting place against Westmeath after they delivered virtuoso displays in the second half, sharing seven points between them.

“It was a good game to watch but the level of performance we gave made it a bit easier to watch,” said McCann, who made his Championship debut against Laois in 2011.

“Offaly had a big support and we were fairly outnumbered. But even when we had 14 players it was really pleasing to see how the team reacted to that.”

But with no time to bathe in last week's euphoric win, one of McCann's roles this week will be getting the younger players' feet back down to earth.

“That's the most difficult thing about it - you can't dwell on it too much. It was a really good occasion for the supporters, you could see the families and the loyal support and what it meant to them. They were over the moon. Some of them were borderline emotional with the victory.

“But it's about trying to get the squad back down to earth again because Westmeath have had two weeks to prepare for coming up to play us. They're in the same position as us - it doesn't matter if you win by one point or 10 points.”

Another win would guarantee Antrim a place in the Joe McDonagh final on June 30 as well as paving a path into the All-Ireland series, one preliminary round before the quarter-final stages.

The Dunloy clash is win-or-bust for Joe Quaid's Westmeath side who earned promotion to Division 1B earlier in the season, their first return to the top flight in 33 years. They face McDonagh group leaders Laois the following weekend in a bid to reach the decider.

McCann added: “I've been in the squad for a few years now and you can kind of compare previous squads. This group has put in a huge effort. It would mean an awful lot.

"We reached the Christy Ring final a couple of years ago and we got fairly hammered early on [by Carlow].

“We won Division 2A a few years ago which is the only silverware we have over the last 15 years, excluding Ulster titles.

“You could see the emotion among the Antrim supporters after beating Offaly. Beating Westmeath would mean so much to the players and the players' families and the people in the background nobody ever hears of. We're treating this game like a semi-final.”

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Hurling and camogie

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