Antrim Hurling Championship reaches the business end
THE Antrim Senior Hurling Championship has now reached a crucial stage with North Antrim's four hurling giants meeting this weekend for final places.
Dunloy face Ballycastle in Loughgiel today (5pm) while the holders Cushendall entertain Loughgiel in Dunloy tomorrow (5pm)
This evening sees Dunloy and Ballycastle go toe-to-toe in one where the Cuchullian's would start slight favourites. They have already beaten their neighbours by a seven-point margin in a home League game, with the second leg still to come.
They have been in the mix in recent times, last making the final three years ago when they lost to Loughgiel and winning the title in ’09 when they de-throned Cushendall.
The McQuillans, once the Antrim kingpins with three-in-a-row successes in the 1950s and late 1970s and again back-to-back crowns in ’83 and ’84 have not featured in recent times.
The last title they won was 29 years ago, long before many of the present side were born.
The sides met in last season's quarter-finals with Dunloy winning 0-18 to 3-5 and it seems highly likely that they will again repeat that success.
With a 10-point success against 'Rossa in their quarter-final game the 'Town put up a good show with Conleth McCaughan and Stephen McGarry goals proving vital while Dunloy had an even easier ride, 4-13 to 2-3 victors against Clooney Gaels.
While they won handily enough in the end the Ahoghill side were very much in the game at the halfway mark before two Alastair Dooey goals and a Paddy Doherty effort put the issue to bed.
Ballycastle will provide much sterner opposition for the Dunloy side and there should be no more than a handful of points in it.
The firepower of Cuchullians looks the stronger with Nigel Elliott and Sean Dowds all match winners. Paul Shiels can be relied upon for at least half a dozen points while midfielders Chris Kearns and Paudie Conlon have been known to chip in also.
And again at the back Mickey McClements, Conor McKinley and the McKeagues, Kevin and James, appear to hold all the trump cards.
McQuillans will rely heavily on Matthew Donnelly, Dermot Donnelly, Neal McAuley, Chris Boyle, Conleth McCaughan, Saul McCaughan, and Ciaran Clarke to deliver but they may just fall short on this occasion.
The second semi-final between the holders Ruairi Ogs and Loughgiel tomorrow is much harder to call, although current League form would suggest the Shamrocks should romp home.
Already League champions, and unbeaten to boot, with an 11-point home victory and three away recorded, it will take a big improvement from the Ruairi Ogs to retain their title.
After four-in-a-row the Shamrocks were somewhat surprisingly turned over at the quarter-final stage last season by the ‘Dall, 2-12 to 0-12, and will be wary of that fact when they again meet in this competition.
While Cushendall have had a rocky enough League campaign, their strength lies in their ability to raise their game at Championship time and from winning their first crown in ’81, when the beat Ballycastle, they have been a mighty potent force ever since.
Championship meetings between this pair have been fairly evenly matched, the ‘Dall winning in ’05 ,’06 and ’08 while the Shamrocks returned the compliment in ’10, ’11 and ‘13 as part of their four in arrow success.
Loughgiel are certainly hell-bent on reclaiming the crown in this the club's centenary year while the Ruairi Ogs are equally determined to deny them that pleasure.
It looks a case of pay your money and take your pick as the cream of the counties hurlers go to war, Martin Burke, Aiden McNaughton, Ryan McCambridge, Eoghan Campbell Shane McNaughton, Neil McManus, Conor Carson, and Christy McNaugton for the ‘Dall and the Shamrocks Paul Gillan, Martin Scullion, Johnny Campbell Barney McAuley, Mark McFadden, Joey Scullion, Dan McCloskey and Eddie McCloskey.