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Saffron camogs look best placed to collect points against old rivals Down in league opener

Antrim broke Down's dominance with a win over their rivals in last year's Ulster final and will look to build on that when the sides meet in their National League opener in Portglenone on Saturday
Antrim broke Down's dominance with a win over their rivals in last year's Ulster final and will look to build on that when the sides meet in their National League opener in Portglenone on Saturday

Very Ireland Camogie League Division 1B round one: Antrim v Down (Saturday, Portglenone, 2pm)

TWO years ago when the Division Two league got underway at Portglenone, Antrim shocked the team that had beaten them convincingly in the All-Ireland Intermediate final the previous December.

However, Down bounced back to beat Antrim in the league final a couple of months later in Owenbeg and then continued their dominance of Ulster with a win over the Saffrons in Armagh. However, Antrim went on to take Croke Park by storm in September and join Down in the senior grade.

They met again in the Ulster final last April and the tide seemed to be changing with Róisín McCormick hitting a hat-trick of goals as Antrim took the title. Down, however, dug in the heels in the opening round of the All-Ireland Senior Championship last May and the game ended in a draw.

The same players have been involved over the past three seasons as this rivalry has built up, but there will be one notable addition to the Saffron ranks this year.

Shannon Graham was a winner with Antrim right through the underage ranks and collected an All-Ireland Junior title with them in 2010. Over the next couple of years she drifted in and out of county panels before transferring her club allegiance from Creggan to Slaughtneil.

She was a key component as Slaughtneil took provincial and national titles over the past seven years, but seemed to fall out of favour with the Emmet’s last season. During the autumn she transferred to Ballycastle and has thrown her lot in with the Saffrons once more.

Shannon Graham returns to Antrim colours this year after her recent transfer to Ballycastle
Shannon Graham returns to Antrim colours this year after her recent transfer to Ballycastle

Ironically her last competitive inter-county game was against Down in the Ulster semi-final back in 2019, her only game in Derry colours.

A fully-focussed Graham will of course be a big asset for Antrim particularly in the continued absence of Maeve Kelly who will miss a second season, this time with a cruciate injury. Antrim have also struggled to find a player who will give them what they need at centre-forward.

Sara Louise Graffin was not part of the Down squad last year, but she arrived back with a bang after the birth of her child and featured strongly for Clonduff in their All-Ireland run. She will be asked to fulfil a similar role to Graham for a Down team now captained by Niamh Mallon.

While neither team has changed substantially over the past three seasons, Antrim probably have shown more development and improvement with a younger squad. Down have lost a few key players at the end of their playing careers and don’t seem to have replaced them.

Antrim’s underage structure has been very productive over the past few years and players coming into Elaine Dowds’ squad have much more experience of top-level camogie at school and inter-county level.

Antrim broke a losing run against Down in last year’s Ulster final. They are now in a position to push on and dominate Ulster. They are favourites to win on Saturday and victory would set them up nicely for the challenges ahead.

Down probably need the victory more however. A loss might see them struggle for points in this division as they did in league and championship last year. They are survivors however and might pull off a surprise.