Latest instalment of intriguing Antrim-Down rivarly is a tough one to call as both seek league final glory

Down's Niamh Mallon and Amy Boyle of Antrim during December's All-Ireland intermediate final at Kingspan Breffni. Down won that day while Antrim gained revenge in the opening match of this year's National League
By Seamas McAleenan

Littlewoods Ireland League Division Two final: Antrim v Down (today, Owenbeg, 5pm)

“ANTRIM are a serious team this year,” warned Down manager Derek Dunne after the Littlewoods Ireland League Division Two opener in the in Portglenone.

Down had beaten them comfortably in the All-Ireland Intermediate final back in December, but Antrim had bounced back to win the Portglenone tie 1-13 to 0-13.

“I think they were rabbits caught in the headlights in the All-Ireland final. Today they were a different team and they have obviously done a good strength and conditioning programme over the winter. They will go a long way in league and championship this year,” said Dunne after that defeat.

Dunne’s prophesy has come true and the Saffrons have remained unbeaten to reach a first Division Two final in a decade. Because of that first round defeat, Down’s route to the decider has been arguably more difficult, but the league will finish as it began with a Down v Antrim derby.

After the first quarter of last Saturday’s semi-finals, it looked as if Antrim would easily make it through while Down would be on a face-saving exercise against Wexford.

The Saffrons were in total control and moved into a 0-7 to 0-1 lead against Meath. The opposition would not score from open play until the 48th minute. Yet Antrim lost their way and were fortunate to make it through.

A couple of hours later in Ashbourne, Wexford blitzed Down in the opening quarter, leading by seven points after 11 minutes. Down, however, pulled themselves together and amazingly scored 11 points in a row to take control of the tie midway through the second half.

Down wanted to find new players in this league and seem to have found one in Anna Rogan, who impressed in the reserve team, came in as a sub against Cork and then started against Wexford.

Otherwise it has been about getting the team operating at a faster pace than usual and to that extent the Wexford game has been very useful. That Down came out the other side with victory will be a huge boost to them heading into the championship.

Antrim’s trawl for new players saw girls not available at the end of 2020 back in the fold. Cáitríona Graham looks to have a solid claim on goals, while Maria Lynn and Anna Connolly have contributed well in corner-back and centre-forward respectively.

The fourth 'newcomer' Laoise McKenna started the Down game, didn’t play against Derry but has been solid in the two knock-out games after injuries to the seasoned Chloe Drain and Maeve Connolly left jerseys to claim at the back. Neither Drain nor Connolly will make the starting grid at the weekend.

Defence has been the unit of the team that has impressed in the team’s run to the final with Caoimhe Conlon starring in every game and Niamh Donnelly back into a central position. Withdrawing a player to a sweeping role undoubtedly helps, but it leaves forwards having to get through a lot more work for a score.

Down will have got a huge boost from last weekend while the defeat in the first game will also put them on alert to Antrim’s potential.

Down’s physicality means that they are a problem for any team. Antrim got the result last day because they were able to work with that physicality and break the lines for scores.

On the evidence of last week’s performances Down should start favourites. But Antrim are unbeaten and that includes the win over Down. A loss for either team would be a disappointment – but it would probably be a bigger set-back for Down.

That should drive them to victory – but history could be against them. In 1997 Down had been chasing a Division Two crown for nearly a decade and lost four finals. Antrim came from nowhere to make it five defeats in finals.

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