Hurling and camogie

Antrim hope to have enough to quell Rebels in league semi-final

Siobhan McKillop has returned to the Antrim panel this year and played a big role in the Saffrons' march to the Division Two semi-finals

Littlewoods Ireland Division Two semi-final: Antrim v Cork (Sunday, Edenderry, 3pm)

THREE of the four teams playing this Sunday in the Division Two league semi-finals are also preparing to take part in the All-Ireland senior championship that begins next month.

Cork are the odd team out and they play last year’s beaten finalists Antrim who have had an uneventful run through to this stage.

The Saffrons had away games with Kerry and Laois, both of which were really poor preparation for the knock-out stages where they would need to be at their sharpest.

The middle game against Galway in Portglenone was of a decent standard with Antrim scoring a late goal to win by four points. However, it was far from the level of intensity that the All-Ireland semi-final last August in Clones provided.

That Clones game had Antrim flying as they went into the final at Croke Park and, after a faulty start, the Saffrons took Kilkenny apart and were impressive winners. Interestingly both Kilkenny and Galway were beaten in the league quarter-finals last weekend.

Cork beat Galway by 1-13 to 0-10 even though Galway led by 0-4 to 0-1 after 10 minutes. Joanne Casey pointed eight frees and Rachel O’Shea scored the goal before half-time.

Antrim will not need to be reminded that Cork went 10 points up on them in the first quarter of an All-Ireland Intermediate group game last July and stayed ahead until the final whistle.

In hindsight that defeat was a welcome development as it helped focus the Antrim girls for the rest of the championship.

This weekend is their first meeting since that game in Cork and it won’t be too difficult to motivate the Ulster team going into the game.

Apart from maybe setting the record straight against Cork, there is the extra incentive of a return to Croke Park as the Division Two final is scheduled there as the opener of a double-header with the Division One game on Saturday, April 9.

Because of their lack of competitive action so far, it is difficult to say where Antrim really are in relation to achieving what escaped them in the final minutes of last year’s final in Owenbeg.

The transition to the new management team seems to have been seamless, helped no doubt by Elaine Dowds remaining and taking over the reins.

A couple of players who had been in the panel a few years ago have returned and are playing well, specifically the forwards, Siobhán McKillop, Caoimhe Wright and Méadhb Lavery. McKillop and Wright have contributed well on the scoreboard, something that the team needed with the enforced absence of 2021 Player of the Year Maeve Kelly due to a broken bone in her foot.

Caitrin Dobbin, a fairly consistent goalscorer over the past two seasons, is also out of action at present after breaking a finger in training last week. The league campaign would therefore seem to have delivered ready replacements.

Defender Maeve Connolly has retired from the inter-county scene. Laoise McKenna, a regular during last year’s league, seems to have slotted in to half-back.

This Cork game should test not only the new players, but also whether the team can recover their All-Ireland final form.

I expect Cork to stay with Antrim most of the game, but the Saffrons should have the experience to fend them off and reach a second successive final.

Wexford face Waterford in Sunday's other semi-final in Carlow (1pm).

Last year Wexford decided to drop down divisions to regroup after a couple of seasons where they found player-commitment a problem. They came unstuck in the semi-final last year despite getting a good start against Down. In the end Down had a comfortable win.

At the same time in a Division One curtailed by Covid, Waterford got off to a poor start and ended up in a relegation final with Dublin. Much the same as the Down v Wexford game, Dublin had the hunger to fight their way out of trouble and that is how Waterford has ended up in the lower Division.

Waterford look like a more settled team and they are strong enough to reach the final.

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Hurling and camogie