Hurling and camogie

O'Donovan Rossa aiming for final assault against Cushendall

Rossa will hope to reach a rare Antrim SHC final as Cushendall stand in their way Picture by Hugh Russell.

Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Ruairi Og Cushendall v O’Donovan Rossa Belfast (tomorrow, Dunsilly, 12.30pm)

IT’S been the usual refrain for so many years now. 'The Antrim Senior Hurling Championship needs a Belfast team to make the breakthrough'.

One of the best club championships in the country has been waiting a while now for an urban uprising.

St Gall’s gatecrashed the decider in 2014 against Cushendall in a game that was always beyond them.

You have to go back a further 10 years when O’Donovan Rossa wrestled the Volunteer Cup away from the zealous clutches of the Glensmen.

Between 1990 and 2003, Dunloy and Cushendall shared the championships between them.

Last year, Rossa and St John’s made mighty charges but were stopped at the semi-final stages by defending champions Dunloy and Loughgiel Shamrocks, respectively.

While the two west Belfast clubs left an indelible impression on a quite brilliant 2020 Championship, the hard cold truth is they didn’t do enough.

At least that’s the worldview of Rossa manager Colly Murphy.

Belfast clubs, he says, have to earn the right to reach the final. For him, geography plays no role.

“It is what it is,” said Murphy, a former county hurler. “If you’re not putting the work in you can’t complain. How can you knock the likes of Cushendall, Dunloy and Loughgiel?

“In fairness, people could say the same thing about Ballycastle as they haven’t won a title since the mid-80s, St John’s the mid-70s and ourselves 2004. You get what you deserve.

“Loughgiel, Cushendall and Dunloy put the work in. Okay, you need a bit of luck and St John’s and ourselves are hamstrung as we’re senior dual clubs, although it doesn’t seem to affect Dunloy too much.

“I watched them play football last week and I think they had seven hurlers playing.”

Rather than feeling despondent about the nature of last season's agonising semi-final defeat to Dunloy, Rossa have grown in confidence and self-belief from the experience.

Make no mistake, Murphy's crew are in good shape heading into tomorrow's semi-final - a repeat of last year's thrilling quarter-final.

“I think we’ve kicked on from last year," Murphy says matter-of-factly.

"Everybody can see a massive change in culture among the players. They now believe they are up there and are as good as anybody. Their willingness to train and do extra is phenomenal. They’ve had a long, hard winter with Niall McHugh [S&C coach] in the gym, so they are in top condition.

“In saying that, I think St John’s, Cushendall and Dunloy have all improved from last year.”

Murphy is absolutely right about tomorrow’s semi-final opponents: Cushendall are in a much better place than last season.

Neil McManus and Martin Burke had terrible struggles with injury last year. Both men are flying fit again for the 2021 league champions.

“We weren’t really targeting the league as we didn’t have the county boys,” said Ruairi Og boss Brian Delargy, “so we used more players than we would normally do in other years and boys got a chance and they’ve actually nailed down positions on the senior team, so the league was very beneficial to us.”

Paddy McGill is struggling with a hamstring injury for Cushendall but they’re hopeful goal-poacher Alex ‘Del Boy’ Delargy will be passed fit to face Rossa.

The west Belfast men’s injury worries appear to be clearing up at just the right time – so neither camp can complain after tomorrow's mouthwatering contest about key players not being fit.

Christy McNaughton and Neil McManus will be Cushendall’s main scoring threats tomorrow while county ace Paddy Burke will drop back to centre half-back and allow Arron Graffin to sweep.

It’s how Rossa go about upsetting Cushendall’s well-drilled defensive system that could be key.

The west Belfast men have the forwards to do damage – none more so than the manager’s sons Deaghlan and Tiernan while Dominic McEnhill and Stephen Beatty always offer Rossa a goal threat, remembering Beatty’s two late goals that sunk Cushendall in last year’s pulsating quarter-final.

“I don’t think when you’re playing at this level you can talk about revenge,” insisted Delargy.

“It happens in sport. You get a defeat and you deal with it, but you always have a chance to get back. Rossa were the better team last year and were hurling really well, so it wasn’t a surprise they beat us. But we're well prepared for Sunday's game."

Flip a coin. It's that hard to call. But it just might fall on the Belfast side.

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Hurling and camogie