O'Donovan Rossa can ambush Cushendall in championship showdown
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final: O’Donovan Rossa, Belfast v Ruairi Og Cushendall (today, Naomh Enna, 4pm)
GIVEN the sapping impact of the global pandemic, this could be the year when the serfs poke the aristocracy in the eye and escape the shackles of history.
The hurlers of O’Donovan Rossa won’t have a better opportunity than 2020 to make a name for themselves and edge closer to the Volunteer Cup they last won in 2004.
The west Belfast men have played arguably the best hurling in the championship group stages, and yet only qualified for the knock-out phase in third place behind Dunloy and St John’s – and now face another hurling heavyweight today.
While most teams have been trying to find their stride in this truncated club campaign, Rossa hit the ground running in both codes.
Rossa boss Colly Murphy has bemoaned the punishing schedule his dual players have had to endure this year – but they haven’t been too badly hit by injuries up to now.
And although they failed to close out the round robin deals against St John’s and Dunloy, they still look like a bouncing fit team.
In their do-or-die showdown with Ballycastle last weekend, they hit the kind of tally – 4-14 - that was probably coming for a while.
Fulfilling a number of different roles so far this year, ex-county ace Michael Armstrong has been the irrefutable stand-out performer in this year’s brilliant hurling series.
The Rossa full-back line, marshalled superbly by Niall Crossan, has been exceptionally sticky while the Shannons (Stephen and Sheaghan) and the Murphys (Deaghlan and Tiarnan) have really stepped up to the plate while no opponent has been able to contain Stephen Beatty’s penetrating runs from the middle.
The returning Aodhan O’Brien and two-goal hero Thomas Morgan have merely sharpened the attacking edge of the side, while James Connolly has chipped in with scores from play as well as his regular haul from placed balls.
Observers would argue – and with some justification – that some of the lesser lights could catch one of the big teams this year given how the pandemic has levelled the hurling field.
Normally at this stage of the season, Cushendall’s county stars would have returned to club duty razor-sharp from a clutch of Joe McDonagh games and the squad probably would have planed off any rough edges with a few weekends in the south.
Ruairi Og boss Eamon Gillan hasn’t been afforded that luxury this year, but the north Antrim men who have been a constant fixture in the last seven county finals – winning three of them – have shown signs of improvement with each passing game, albeit against weaker opposition.
“[After losing to Loughgiel], there probably has been a steady improvement in us,” said Cushendall’s versatile Eoghan Campbell.
“It’s been a very weird experience for everybody. You’re turning up to matches, there are no changing rooms and you’re not allowed to go inside at half-time, the water breaks, but from the Loughgiel game through to St Enda’s and St Gall’s games we have gelled a bit more and progressed a bit.
“Rossa have James Connolly, Michael Armstrong is back, ‘Crickey’ [Chris McGuinness] – they’ve so many players of a high calibre. I suppose it’ll stand to them the group they were in.
"But I’ve always massive confidence in our team. We’ve some outstanding players and some outstanding young ones coming through. I think it’s going to a test for both teams.
“We have to work for the entire game and don’t allow the Rossa players the space they want.”
Rossa have undoubtedly played with fantastic flair and intensity to reach the quarter-finals, but the greatest compliment you can pay Cushendall is rarely does anyone look good playing against the Ruairi Ogs.
Paddy Burke and Arron Graffin remain the spiritual leaders in defence, Aidan McNaughton and young Niall McCormick have done well in midfield, while Paddy McGill, Eoghan Campbell and Alex Delargy will hope to assist Neil McManus on the scoreboard.
But, make no mistake, Cushendall are rusty in parts and vulnerable.
If Rossa can reduce their concerning number of unforced errors, they have the bounce in their limbs to cause an upset.