Hurling and camogie

Depleted Antrim still in with a shout against Westmeath at Corrigan

Antrim's Nicky McKeague with Westmeath's Killian Doyle in last year's encounter. Doyle is absent from the Westmeath squad this year Picture: Cliff Donaldson.

Joe McDonagh Cup: Antrim v Westmeath (Tomorrow, Corrigan Park, 2pm)

AS far as PR goes, Antrim GAA won’t have many better weeks. From the wreckage of Aughrim seven days ago, the Antrim footballers and management team rejected the chance of two free points from Waterford and decided to accommodate their opponents in Dundalk this afternoon.

It was the fear of Covid Waterford refused to set foot in the north, whereas the virus is very much real for the Antrim hurlers as they prepare for tomorrow’s Joe McDonagh opener against last year’s beaten finalists Westmeath at a shiny new Corrigan Park.

Darren Gleeson’s Antrim squad has been ravaged by positive Covid tests since last week’s heroic win over Kerry in Tullamore to seal promotion back to Division One.

Five players returned positive Covid results and another player is self-isolating as he was deemed a close contact of the first player to experience symptoms and who later tested positive on Tuesday.

While the players who tested positive remain unnamed, tomorrow’s line-up won’t be able to disguise the area of the team where the positive test results hit hardest: the forward line.

Throw in Neil McManus’s hamstring injury and it’ll become abundantly clear Westmeath will fancy their chances of getting off to a winning start in Belfast tomorrow.

Like other counties affected by coronavirus, Antrim would have been well within their rights to seek a postponement but the fact Gleeson would not countenance such a scenario suggests he has tremendous faith in the depth of his options.

“We’ve 32 on the panel,” the Tipp man said, “and we had the U20s if we needed them and a development squad training away as well.

“So we have a depth of people we can call on but we don’t need to go into the U20s or the development squad for this game. We have our 26 picked and we’ll have a good hand to play with on Sunday.

“There are boys who would’ve been disappointed all year who haven’t got game-time – they’re now going to see game-time. It’s a big opportunity for lads to say: ‘Well, I told you I was good enough.’”

Gleeson hopes the after-glow of last week’s fantastic performance will carry into tomorrow’s showdown with an opponent they know only too well.

After sweeping to a memorable victory over Offaly last summer, the wheels came off Antrim’s Joe McDonagh challenge seven days later against a very savvy and physically imposing Westmeath side who qualified for the final as a result of their eight-point win in Dunloy.

Charismatic Limerick man Joe Quaid was surprisingly replaced by Dubliner Shane O’Brien for the 2020 season with former Galway coach Noel Larkin, former Galway hurler Alan Kerins and former Tipp coach Paudie O’Neill comprising a strong backroom team.

But the Midlanders are without their best player Killian Doyle who has moved to England. Doyle scored 17 of Westmeath’s 29-point tally in Dunloy last year and will be sorely missed. However, O’Brien says the club championships yielded some youthful talent.

“We know them and they know us,” Gleeson said.

“It’s going to be an intriguing battle. They’ve changed their manager; I don’t know if they’ve changed the way they play. Paudie O’Neill, who was the Tipperary coach in 2013 and 2014, is in with them.

“I know Paudie very well, he’s really highly thought of. So they’ve a good coaching set-up there and it’ll be interesting to see what they bring.

“The euphoria of last Sunday is still in our system, which is a great booster,” added the Antrim manager.

“We didn’t train on Tuesday obviously [with Covid tests being carried out], but the boys are fresh and will be excited about the game. And that’s a big positive for me coming into this match.”

The home side will undoubtedly miss a host of key attackers but if Antrim can bring the same insatiable work-rate as they produced in Tullamore, they still have the hurling in them to win. A tall order, but achievable.

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Hurling and camogie