Hurling & Camogie

Depleted Saffrons look vulnerable to improving Oaks

Preview of this weekend’s three provincial camogie finals

Maeve Kelly
While Antrim have inexperience further back the pitch, the presence of Maeve Kelly, alongside Roisin McCormick and Caitrín Dobbin, will be a serious threat to Derry’s hopes of winning Saturday’s Ulster decider (©INPHO/John McVitty ©INPHO/John McVitty/©INPHO/John McVitty)

Senior final Derry v Antrim (Saturday, Edendork, 4.15pm)

AS they did 12 months ago, Antrim go into the Ulster senior final as favourites.

The outcome last year was a comfortable enough victory for Down and the Saffrons could well face a similar scenario if Derry improve their chances created to chances converted ratio of recent games.

Antrim haven’t played a competitive game in six weeks. Their last outing was against Dublin at the end of March in a final group game in the  league.

They probably needed a break after those five games, given the turmoil that preceded their narrow victory over Down in the first game. Six weeks though is probably too long a gap.

Certainly the new management team will now be wondering if things could have been different if they had been playing competitive games rather than accumulating injuries in training or club activity.

The injury list has been growing significantly with Caoimhe Conlon and Annie Lynn both out with broken bones in their hands and Colleen Patterson damaging her ACL, while former captain Lucia McNaughton is still unable to resume her county career. The Saffron panel is down to just 20 fit players.

Nevertheless they achieved three victories in Division 1B and with players such as Maeve Kelly, Róisín McCormick and Caitrín Dobbin in the forward line, they have still a lot of experience and fire-power to help them overcome Derry, who featured in a grade lower league.

While the Oak Leaf comfortably dethroned Down a fortnight ago, they were still far from impressive, although a little more accurate than they were a fortnight earlier in the Division 2A final in Croke Park.

At least they have had two games to see them through the six weeks that have been idle for the Saffrons.

But the games in Croke Park and Owenbeg have flagged up problems for the team as they head into the O’Duffy Cup group games, where they have to face Antrim again, Division One champions Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny and Limerick.

They have the capacity to rectify some of those problems that have surfaced, but from now on they are playing more experienced top-level teams that can exploit weaknesses.

Derry tried out a few players in new roles up front against Down; some things worked, others didn’t.

The concession of five points and no real goal chances will hearten PJ O’Mullan and his management team, but they weren’t facing a forward line that contained a top-level forward, such as Westmeath’s Megan Dowdall, who destroyed their chances of victory in Croke Park, nor the combined firepower of Kelly, McCormick and Dobbin.

Defence is the least experienced part of the Antrim team; through the league campaign they have featured a half-back line none of whom are out of their teens yet. Now, without Patterson or Conlon, they look all the more vulnerable.

But Derry need to be able to take advantage and that really means getting goals. In their second league game they scored three goals against Cavan. Over the course of the other five league games and the provincial semi-final against Down, they have added just three more.

They have shown that they can accumulate a good points’ tally – despite also hitting a lot of wides. But goals hurt teams and Antrim’s forwards have the skill set to get goals.

It could be a high-scoring game and good value for the entrance fee. Before this year, Down had appeared in each Ulster senior final since 2018 and lost just once – to Antrim two years ago in Edendork.

The Saffrons won for the 48th time that day. Derry have not won since taking their 12th crown in 2017.

Verdict There is a great opportunity for Derry to go back to the top in the province. But they need to be more clinical than they have been recently. Their main problem should be taming Antrim’s triple goal-threat.

Intermediate final Armagh v Antrim (Saturday, Edendork, 2.45pm)

TAKING on board the league performances of the three teams competing for this Intermediate title, the outcome of the semi-final in Kingspan Breffni Park a fortnight ago was always likely to produce the overall winner.

Cavan had been relegated from Division 2A, while Armagh had won Division 3A. Provincial title-holders Antrim ended up bottom of Division 3B.

Last year, Antrim’s second string had come off an All-Ireland junior final win over Armagh in 2022 and contested the Division 3B final with a Clare team that would go on to win the 2023 title.

However, that particular group of players was collateral damage to the management changes that caused so many difficulties for the county at the turn of the year.

Kieran Megraw eventually headed the new management team that has taken charge of a group of players that has had little, if any, underage experience with the county. Only one or two come from the north Antrim clubs that made up the successful squad of the previous two years.

Armagh and Cavan games have been pretty tough encounters over the past couple of seasons and, despite the boost the Orchard county got from winning the league title, the semi-final followed that pattern.

Cavan gave Armagh a good test, but a 1-16 to 2-8 victory has endorsed them as provincial intermediate champions in waiting and strong contenders for the All-Ireland junior title.

It’s basically an experienced inter-county team up against a new and very inexperienced squad.

Verdict Armagh to win very comfortably

Junior final Tyrone v Down (Sunday, Pearse Óg, Armagh, 1pm)

TYRONE impressed in the recent Division Four final, running up a decent total of 3-16 against Wicklow’s 0-10 in a convincing victory.

They are unbeaten this season to date and are slowly getting their injured players back to fitness.

A second trophy would be a good confidence boost with the All-Ireland championships about to start.

Down are a very young squad – many of them were also on the minor panel. They have won just once, their first outing of the season against Antrim.

Since then, however, they have lost top-scorer Niamh McGrath and goalie Aoife Sherry who both started in the senior team for the recent semi-final against Derry, while Orla Brown came in as a sub.

That seriously weakens them and it will make it very difficult to deal with a speedy Tyrone attack.

Verdict A second title of the season for Tyrone