Dunloy's Conal Cunning believes his side can close the gap on Ulster final opponents Slaughtneil

Conal Cunning insists that Dunloy can close the gap on rivals Slaughtneil, who have had their measure in recent provincial encounters, when the sides meet again in this weekend's AIB Ulster Club SHC final Picture by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
By Paul Keane

IF you add up the winning margins from their three AIB Ulster Club championship games against Dunloy, spanning the last five years, Slaughtneil are 22 points to the good.

It is a rivalry, for sure, and a heated one at that, but it is also one-sided and it is no great surprise that Dunloy are almost 2/1 underdogs to collect an 11th provincial title at the Athletic Grounds this Sunday.

Put simply, if Dunloy are the established order in Ulster Club hurling, collecting their 10 titles before Slaughtneil had even won their first, then the south Derry club are the modern masters with four crowns since 2016.

That is not something that even Dunloy's Conal Cunning can dispute though he doesn't see the gap as insurmountable.

"It could go both ways," he argues.

"It's like a game of chess in a way because we know every (Slaughtneil) player and every position. We know the roles of their players and they know ours. The team that wants it the most will win. It's not that we haven't wanted it the last few years, we just haven't got over the line."

So what exactly is it that Slaughtneil do so well?

"There are a lot of things," acknowledges the Antrim star.

"They are experienced in championship hurling, their physicality, and they maybe play a different style of hurling than what we are used to and it doesn't suit what you do. Their use of the ball is very good. But we would argue that we haven't performed to our best (against them), maybe only in patches the last four or five years, and if you are not consistent for 60 minutes at this level then it's not going to work out for you."

Slaughtneil, renowned as a team of veteran, canny performers, have been carefully rebuilding and revitalising their team, dotting talented young performers throughout it. There is no sign that they are going anywhere but forwards and after running both Ballygunner and Ballyhale Shamrocks - two generational teams - desperately close in recent years, the next step for them is to push on in the All-Ireland series.

Against that background, a Dunloy win on Sunday would be a landmark one. It doesn't help, however, that they won their county final way back in mid-October.

"Such a gap since our last match is not ideal because you're not sure how your form is," said Cunning. "Yes, it might have been good in the county championship but that isn't going to necessarily carry over into Ulster. We hope we have been doing the right things in training, looking at the things we didn't do so well in the last few years and hoping we can do better this time. But it's not easy to reenact a championship match, we just hope that's enough at the weekend."