Antrim seek to complete Ulster trio in All-Ireland junior semi-finals
Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Premier Junior Championship
ULSTER sides have been making a big impression in the Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Premier Junior championship this season.
Cavan have lost just one game all season, picking up the Division Three league title along the way and are already through to the championship semi-finals next month.
Armagh lost their opening game of the league by a point to Cavan, but have since remained unbeaten, collecting the Ulster Intermediate title on the way. They too are assured of a semi-final spot in the championship next month.
A third county is also making waves. Antrim inflicted that single defeat on Cavan in the semi-final of the Ulster Intermediate championship before losing the final to Armagh.
They now play Armagh this Saturday in their penultimate group game in the Premier Junior championship with a strong possibility that they also will join both Cavan and Armagh in the semi-finals.
Brian Kearney, joint-manager with Mark “Duck” McFadden, has been pleased with how the “project” has progressed this year.
“The idea of a reserve team at this level was raised after the seniors had reached the 2020 All-Ireland final. Down had started a reserve team that year and one or two girls had come through to their senior team as a result," said Kearney.
“Last year, however, didn’t go the way Antrim hoped and they ended up withdrawing the team half-way through the season. We learned a lot from what went wrong. There has been a good bit of work put into this team and they have been treated the same as the first team.
“The pre-season training was done as one group and then we split into the two panels once the leagues started. We have been really pleased with the way things have gone.
“Essentially you want to give players experience at inter-county adult level, some of them coming right out of minor. Others have been around for a while but would have to sit on the bench and wait their turn if there was just one Antrim team. With a second team, you have those players gaining experience, building up their confidence and the step to the senior team then doesn’t seem that big after all.”
However success with this reserve team probably means that players are lost to the senior set-up leaving Kearney’s team weaker as a result.
“Well that is true. Katie Laverty and Cassie McArthur played for us through the league and in the Ulster championship. They are now with the seniors and Katie played in the championship against Kilkenny. That is what this is all about.”
The Cushendall man’s daughter, Clare, is one of several players who came through minor a number of years ago and is enjoying a new lease of life in the team. But Kearney admits that involvement with the team has cut out opportunities to watch other games, including the Antrim senior hurlers where his son David has been featuring in defence.
“We stopped off at Corrigan to get the first half of the Cork hurling game on our way down to Attical for the last group game. But there have been clashes all along the line.
“We don’t even get to see the Antrim senior camogs playing. We tend to have matches on the same day. I think I have only got to one of their games so far. But it was still good to hear that Katie (Laverty) was able to come in against Kilkenny.”
The Cushendall clubman is quick to add that the group has come on a lot during the course of the season and will still be competitive despite losing the Dunloy pair to the senior squad.
“Put it like this, we will be very disappointed if we don’t make the semi-finals. The girls have worked really hard and we are playing well as a team.
“It was a big disappointment to lose Brogan (Abram) with an ACL injury a few weeks ago and we have some very young players out and in due to exams over the past month. We went to Attical with just 18 players and we still managed to put together a decent performance and remain unbeaten.”
However that unbeaten run will be under threat this Saturday when Antrim face the other unbeaten side in their group, Armagh.
“Look Armagh are a far more experienced team than we are. I would say they will be very disappointed in themselves if they do not reach Croke Park and win the Junior. They beat us in the league and again in the Ulster final.
“We know that we will be up against it, but I think we are also good enough to qualify from this group and take a chance with the semi-finals next month.”
* ARMAGH are already through to the Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Premier Junior semi-finals next month and complete their group games with this visit to Dunloy.
Opponents Antrim are also unbeaten and the only other team with a plus score difference. They have one game left after this one and the likelihood is that they will still make the semi-finals, even if they lose this top of the table clash.
The teams have met in a league game during the spring time and again in the Ulster final and Armagh won both games, but in each Antrim put it up to them.
While Armagh added Jenny Curry to their starting team after the league and have seen Rachel Merry return to something like the form she was showing before her injury this time last year, Antrim’s panel has shrunk.
Cousins Katie Laverty and Cassie McArthur have been added to the senior squad with Laverty making her debut against Kilkenny. They have also lost one of their top scoring forwards during the league, Brogan Abram, to a long term injury.
A comparison of the results in the group so far, in particular the games against Roscommon and Down, indicate that Armagh won those games by double the margin that Antrim did.
It seems fair enough to forecast another victory for former Antrim manager Jim McKernan and his Orchard county charges as they focus in on the knock-out stages.
Antrim will endeavour to keep the scoreline to something like the Ulster final one and take their chances the following week in the final group game against Limerick.
Limerick are at home against Down on Saturday in a game that will decide who finishes bottom of the group. Both have shipped similar type defeats in their two previous group games, but Down seemed to be improving.
If the visitors can get a foothold early in the game they can edge what should be a tight enough tussle.
Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Premier Junior championship
Cappamore: Limerick v Down
Dunloy: Antrim v Armagh