Hurling & Camogie

Saffron scoring options enough to keep their noses in front of Armagh

Antrim will be aiming for their 16th straight provincial title, while Armagh are seeking their first ever. Picture by Philip Walsh
Antrim will be aiming for their 16th straight provincial title, while Armagh are seeking their first ever. Picture by Philip Walsh

Ulster Senior Hurling Championship final: Antrim v Armagh (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Owenbeg)

IN the grand scheme of things, Armagh’s achievement in reaching a second consecutive Ulster final will barely force a ripple in the hurling world.

There are Wexford revivals and Kilkenny dips and Galway credentials and even Antrim promotions to be talked about, which leaves little room in the national conversation for what’s been done in the Orchard county.

Their spring fate may have been relegation back to Division 2B but over the last decade they have been a working, shining example of perseverance.

When Mattie Lennon took over as manager in 2006, they didn’t even enter the Ulster Championship, and hadn’t done for 61 years.

Despite what they displayed in their one-point defeat to Derry upon their return a decade ago next month, there was a fairly obvious reason why they hadn’t played in Ulster since 1946.

There were times beyond Lennon’s reign when Armagh looked to be dropping off again but over the past couple of seasons they have defined progress, for which they want that first ever Ulster title to show.

Antrim are unquestionably first in the provincial standings – going for their 16th straight Ulster title tomorrow – but Armagh are equally settled in second place now.

Despite their relegation, a third consecutive win over Down is enough affirm Armagh’s place above the Ardsmen.

They could well end up scrapping with Derry for a Nicky Rackard Cup in a few weeks’ time but it would be hard to argue that the Oak Leafers stand above them either.

Has their improvement continued to the point where it will bring them a first ever provincial title?

The cold light of day would still suggest that they have a bit to go to catch Antrim, who have addressed last year’s dip thanks to a fine League campaign.

Their National League meeting actually brought one of the best Armagh performances of the season as their direct and physical approach knocked Antrim out of their stride.

When Cahal Carvill netted and followed it up with a point after 55 minutes, Sylvester McConnell’s side led in the Athletic Grounds. Alas, they couldn’t hold on as sub Deaghlan Murphy’s free-taking squeezed the favourites across the line.

It wasn’t a comfortable afternoon for Antrim though, by any stretch. Even when they went seven clear after that scare, Armagh came back with another rally to cut the gap to a goal late on, although the Division 2A champions eventually won by seven points.

The underdogs – who are as far out as 13/2 with some bookmakers – will no doubt follow a similar path based around the influence of the two Carvills in attack.

David’s presence beneath his own side’s puckouts is a reliable source of possession while Cahal’s presence is most likely to be closer to goal than for most of last weekend’s win over Down.

He was the given the job of ‘marking’ Conor Woods, which he did to a tee, before moving inside when Armagh found themselves a man up late on.

Ryan Gaffney’s thumb injury is likely to keep him out again although Dylan McKenna’s 1-3 from play last weekend will do no harm to the confidence of the Armagh attack.

Antrim have, as promised, reverted to a much stronger side than the one that beat Donegal by 20 points in their semi-final at Celtic Park.

Their line-up is a close cousin of the side that beat Carlow in the Division 2A final, though Maol Connolly has retained his place from last week in the half-forward line as Niall McKenna misses out through injury.

Connolly will most likely assume free-taking duty, but with the talents of Ciaran Clarke and Neil McManus in that department, there are no shortage of solutions to potential issues.

And that ultimately underlines the difference in where Antrim are and where Armagh are. The gap is not huge, certainly not in the same stratosphere as it was a decade ago, but it remains all the same.

Despite the fact that their shooting has left a bit to be desired in more than one of their outings so far this year, for the sheer volume of scoring options they have – Deaglan Murphy, Conor Carson and James McNaughton are all on the bench – it’s hard not to give the nod to Antrim once more.


Antrim: C O’Connell; S McCrory, J Dillon, S Rooney; P Burke, M Donnelly, Ciaran Johnston; C McKinley, P Shiels; M Connolly, C McCann, E Campbell; Conor Johnston, N McManus, C Clarke

Armagh: TBA