Another testing encounter against Tipperary as Antrim auditions continue

Antrim boss Darren Gleeson Picture: Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim v Tipperary (Saturday, Corrigan Park, 3pm)

By Brendan Crossan

THE road-testing for the Championship continues at Corrigan Park today as Darren Gleeson faces into his native Tipperary who are still chasing a League semi-final berth.

It’s not good news from an Antrim perspective that this afternoon’s illustrious visitors still have something to play for. How big the incentive is for Tipp is a moot point though.

Given the condensed nature of the inter-county season, Kilkenny ‘keeper Eoin Murphy was on the money when he described League hurling as the new pre-season, with the Championship too close for comfort for teams to really be at full tilt in March or April.

Tipp have road-tested no fewer than 37 players in Division 1B to Antrim’s 24, which illustrates the difference in resources in both counties.

There’s been a lot of personnel changes between 2023 and 2024 in Antrim – arguably too many for the Ulstermen to make a better fist of 1B this season.

Last summer, Antrim sealed their Leinster SHC status with a convincing win over Westmeath.

Out of the 19 players that were used in Mullingar 10 months ago, 11 are absent from Antrim’s ranks this season for different reasons: Ryan Elliott, Gerard Walsh, Conall Bohill, James McNaughton, Michael Bradley, Keelan Molloy, Conor Johnston, Neil McManus, Seaan Elliott, Daniel McKernan and Domhnall Nugent.

For a county that has ambitions of competing among hurling’s elite, they need everybody’s shoulder to the wheel to pull that off.

With so many absentees, Gleeson has ploughed on manfully in the role and after last week’s six-point defeat to Westmeath, he could’ve offered a dozen plausible excuses.

The poor conditions, a squad shorn of so much experience, or only having 21 players to bring down due to injuries, absenteeism, retirements and the U20s playing in an Ulster final on the same afternoon.

Reporters gave him a chance to pick any of the above.

“That’s something your mother would tell you and wrap her arm around you,” said the Tipp man.

“We are where we are. No margins. That’s soft talk. That’s the reality of it. You have who you have - and you hurl with who you have.”

It’s not something you envisage yourself doing after five years in the job, but Gleeson has been forced to recalibrate so many different parts of his team.

Ballycastle corner-forward Tiernan Smyth has made the biggest sacrifice by taking over the number one jersey.

Rory McCloskey of Loughgiel Shamrocks has been entrusted with the full-back role and must gain confidence from Gleeson selecting him there in each League game to date.

Tiernan Smyth, Paddy Burke, Scott Walsh, Ryan McGarry, Niall O’Connor, Rian McMullan, Fred McCurry and Conal Cunning have also started each game, against Limerick, Dublin, Galway and Westmeath.

Niall McKenna, Conor McCann and Eoghan Campbell would have made it a full house of League appearances only for injuries picked up along the way.

Antrim Gaels will get another snapshot of Gleeson’s emerging nucleus against Tipp at Corrigan Park this afternoon.

The home full-back line will have to contend with Jason Forde (1-7) and Jake Morris (1-3) who mined a combined 1-10 from the Limerick back-line last week.

And Tipp’s attack is strengthened further by the inclusion of Allstar Noel McGrath.

The warm-weather training camp in Portugal can’t come quickly enough for Antrim.