Saffrons can bounce back to down Dubs and book Galway showdown
Leinster SHC quarter-final: Dublin v Antrim (today, 3pm, Pairc Tailteann – live on GAAGO)
IT’S funny how much can change in five weeks. When Antrim walked from sun-soaked Parnell Park on May 22, it felt as though their early season balloon had well and truly burst.
Speaking to media in the middle of the field minutes after the Saffrons’ eight point defeat to Dublin, boss Darren Gleeson was still trying to wrap his head around what had gone wrong, never mind articulating the whys and wheres to those dictaphones thrust in his face.
For him, his management team, the players, there was a palpable sense of shock at what had just unfolded. None had seen it coming because of the manner in which Antrim had laid down a marker upon their return to the top flight.
The doggedness, the drive that saw them claim Clare’s scalp at Corrigan Park on an unforgettable opening weekend, the periods of brilliance that proved they were fit to mix it with the big boys, even in defeat to Kilkenny. Heading down to Dublin, there was reason to believe.
Yet, had it not been for the brilliance of goalkeeper Ryan Elliott, pulling off six point blank saves to keep the Saffrons’ faint hopes alive, it could have got ugly. Really ugly.
With a Leinster Championship renewal in the not-too-distant future, could they bridge that gap in a relatively short space of time? If so, how?
Those are the questions Gleeson will have been wrestling with, particularly in the past couple of weeks as focus shifted solely to today’s huge clash in Navan – a semi-final showdown with Galway next Saturday the prize for the winner.
Antrim were, after the first half water break, second best in most departments, the performances of Gerard Walsh at full-back and the consistently excellent Niall McKenna among the few bright spots on a day to forget.
From that point Mattie Kenny’s men looked fitter, sharper, bigger, stronger, more determined and more clinical.
The dirty ball Antrim won time and again when they flew out of the blocks against the Banner two weeks earlier was no longer going their way, the Dubs coming out the right side of so many rucks and breaking from deep as the Saffrons looked exposed.
Captain Conor McCann didn’t play that day, and has been held in reserve ever since. Antrim fans will be hoping to see him wearing the number 14 jersey at Pairc Tailteann today after the Saffrons struggled to get his replacement, Domhnall Nugent, into the game at Parnell Park.
Stationed on the edge of the square, the big St John’s man found himself swarmed by blue jerseys as Antrim tried to go direct. If fit to start, McCann’s greater mobility and movement across the line will give the Saffrons more options today, and make them less predictable.
There are other factors worth considering as the pair prepare to face off again too.
New to this level, those opening two games against Clare and Kilkenny perhaps took a greater toll on Antrim than anticipated.
Dublin – who will be without injured forward Eamonn Dillon for today’s game - came into that clash off the back of a relatively straightforward victory over Laois the weekend previous and looked far fresher for it.
Yet while Dublin finished off with defeats to Clare and Wexford, the Saffrons emerged from the break in the League programme reinvigorated, producing another powerhouse display to snatch the draw against the Yellowbellies that sealed their survival.
With Gleeson able to rest some weary bodies for the final game at home to the already-relegated O’Moore men – picking up another win along the way – they have had a chance to recharge their batteries ahead of the big one.
Keelan Molloy, James McNaughton, Neil McManus and Joe Maskey missed that final League game, while Aodhan O’Brien and Conor Johnston both picked up knocks that day.
All, according to selector Johnny Campbell, are available for selection today – as is forward Nugent, who has returned to training after a hand injury left him sidelined.
The defeat to Dublin was the only major blot on Antrim’s Division One copybook, and they will be determined to put that right. Having exceeded the expectations of many already, if not themselves, making an impression in Leinster is another potentially huge step in a Saffron story that continues to gather momentum.
Lessons will have been learned, and it would be no surprise to see them right that wrong in Navan and seal a mouthwatering clash with Joe Canning and co.