Antrim ace Rooney keen to make step up in National Hurling League
ANTRIM are flying high in the National Hurling League and the decision taken at last weekend’s GAA Congress to increase the Leinster Hurling Championship from five counties to six means they now have an added incentive to retain their form for the championship.
This winner of this year’s Joe McDonagh Cup will take a step up to join Kilkenny, Dublin, Wexford, Laois and Galway in the Leinster round-robin in 2021.
Four wins from four games have left Antrim within touching distance of a return to Division 1B and maintaining that form will give Darren Gleeson’s emerging side a fighting chance in their McDonagh campaign which also includes Westmeath (Division 1A), Carlow (1B) and 2A rivals Meath and Kerry.
“That (the Leinster Championship) is where we’re aiming for,” said Antrim defender Stephen Rooney.
“Playing at that standard would bring us on a lot. Every single player wants to play against the best players and the Leinster and Munster Championships last year were phenomenal, probably the best they’ve been in years.”
Antrim have yet to make a McDonagh Cup final and winning the tier two competition this year would be a timely breakthrough for a side that has shown promising form since their season began. Their win in Kerry last Sunday means they only need to avoid an unlikely 37-point hammering in Offaly next week to make the league decider.
“We’ve been working hard,” said former Instonians wing and full-back Rooney who had to make a decision between rugby and hurling – something that is becoming less unusual these days.
“The players are pushing each other on and that’s probably where the consistency has come from. We’ve had a good contingent of players from Dunloy and Cushendall from the very start has set us up to be the best we can be.
“The forwards have been working well this year and having that points difference at the top of the table gives us a bit of leeway but it doesn’t mean we’re going to take our foot off the pedal, we set out at the start of the year to win every game and if we can broaden that gap even further we’ll be delighted.
“There’ll be no backward step this year, we’ll play a strong team against Offaly next weekend and even if there are changes we have a panel of 33 and there are lads chomping at the bit to game-time. Whatever team we put out, it will be very competitive.
“We don’t care who we get in the final, we’ll be aiming to win both games.”
Antrim have shown glimpses of form over the past couple of seasons but haven’t been able to show the consistency required to challenge for League or Championship silverware. All that changed so far this season with the appointment of Gleeson as manager.
“This is the first year that we’ve had the best select of players in the county,” said St Paul’s clubman Rooney.
“Having the best players means that every single person is pushing and no-ones position on the team is guaranteed and that leads to better performance.
“We have a strong bench and that’s something Antrim have lacked over the past couple of years – there are boys coming on who are as good, if not better, than the guy they’re replacing. It’s looking positive.”