Carlow presents crunch clash for Antrim hurlers
Joe McDonagh Cup: Carlow v Antrim (Netwatch Cullen Park, Saturday, 3pm)
ANOTHER week, another crunch game for Antrim's hurlers as they hit to road to Netwatch Cullen Park to face Carlow this afternoon.
Darren Gleeson's men have hit the ground running since the resumption of inter-county action with promotion to Division One secured, followed by a huge statement of intent win over Westmeath in their Joe McDonagh Cup opener.
That they managed that without the services of some key figures including Neil McManus (hamstring) and six others sidelined due to Covid-19 speaks volumes about the depth of talent the Saffrons possess on top of a strong team spirit. The majority, if not all, are back in contention to feature today, but whether Gleeson will make too many changes to the team that romped to a 19-point win last Sunday remains to be seen.
Ciaran Clarke and Gerard Walsh made the GAA's Hurling Team of the Week, but there were star performers all over the field last Sunday so the Antrim bainisteoir will have decisions to make.
Heavy rain was expected overnight and this morning, so that could have an impact on team selection and a game between old foes whose last meeting in this competition was a bad-tempered affair at Corrigan Park in 2018 when Carlow finished the game with 12 players to Antrim's 14, but it was the Saffrons who withstood a late rally to grab the points.
Given the Barrowsiders have been up in Division One for the past two years and played in the MacCarthy Cup last season, this suggests they will be coming into the game battle-hardened against the top teams in the country, but they did come up short against Westmeath in the league relegation playoff, meaning Antrim will take their place in the top tier next season.
“Carlow is a good side and won the Joe McDonagh two years ago, beating a good Westmeath team in the final,” notes Gleeson.
“Last year up in the MacCarthy they found it difficult, but Carlow have a small pick of players. Colm Bonnar has done a fantastic job with them so we will have to earn it down in Dr Cullen Park next week, but we'll go down and they will have to earn it as well.”
Antrim are on the crest of a wave, but they have been here before in the McDonagh Cup over the past two seasons when making good starts to their campaign before falling away.
Since a humbling defeat in the 2017 Christy Ring Cup final against the Barrowsiders, Antrim have redressed the balance somewhat, but it will take a big performance to bank a win that would leave them with one foot in the final.
The exchanges are expected to be typically tough, but in that regard Gleeson's men won't be found wanting as they have proven they can be as tenacious as tricky, mixing work-rate and raw hunger with stylish play.
“I suppose if you are standing beside them you have to stand up to them and we are capable of playing it both ways,” he insists.
“We are far from the finished product leaving here today and have a huge amount to work on, but this is a step in the right direction for this competition.
“Getting off to a good start sets you up as the team that loses the first game always has that bit of pressure on them, so we just have to go down there, build on our game-plan, respect what Carlow are going to do and focus on Antrim.”
Having had two massive games in as many weeks, Antrim are well up to speed heading south this weekend.
Carlow have not played since that relegation playoff defeat back in March so it is hard to know whether they will come into the game refreshed or a little rusty.
The Saffrons are oozing confidence and while they will not have everything their own way, they seem to have all the momentum and may just squeeze home.