Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final: Loughgiel Shamrocks v O’Donovan Rossa, Belfast (Tomorrow, Dunsilly, 5pm)
THERE was a degree of head-scratching among Antrim Gaels this week as to whether or not 1pm and 5pm throw-in times at the same venue could be described as a double-header.
The space between tomorrow’s two quarter-finals undoubtedly rules out those few hundred hurling enthusiasts who would have happily stayed on after the first game - featuring St John’s and Ballycastle - to watch Loughgiel Shamrocks and O’Donovan Rossa go toe to toe at five o'clock.
On paper, the slightly more intriguing game is the later quarter-final, the outcome of which will give us an indication of the strength of Rossa’s revival in recent seasons or if the Shamrocks are on their way back.
Their domination at minor level would suggest the revolution is coming in the north Antrim village. They’re definitely good enough to reach this year’s semi-finals.
Whether they have enough at this point in time to topple the more seasoned outfits of Cushendall or Dunloy might be too early for them, but is a debate they'll happily engage in another day.
Their chances of success in Dunsilly tomorrow are undoubtedly aided by the absence of Rossa’s talisman Michael Armstrong who suffered a ruptured ACL in last week’s football quarter-final defeat to Creggan Kickhams.
Should Stephen Beatty’s suspension over an alleged mistaken identity claim be thrown out by the Antrim CCC, and by indications last night that seemed to be the case, the gradient on Rossa’s road gets significantly steeper.
Without Beatty and Armstong, ’Rossa manager Sean Shannon will need others to step up to the plate and announce themselves as leaders on the championship stage.
Former county defender Chris McGuinness will man the square, Seaghan Shannon and Gerard Walsh offer plenty of skill and determination in midfield, although Walsh may have to drop into a central defensive position to compensate for the loss of Armstrong, while Aodhan O’Brien and James Connolly will lead the charge up front.
The vast majority of last year’s squad has been retained and they should all have benefited from the harsh county final lesson Dunloy administered at a packed Corrigan Park.
The muscle memory is there now – and they will regard Loughgiel Shamrocks as a team they’re capable of beating.
The west Belfast men were largely untested in their opening two group games before sizing up Dunloy in their third encounter with both sides already through to the knock-out stages.
So where are Loughgiel Shamrocks at? In the first half against St John’s in their opener, they were no-where near it. By the end of their narrow defeat at Corrigan Park, they had something to build upon.
Ronan McMullan, Daniel McCloskey and Maol Connolly stepped up for the north Antrim men and were unlucky not to snatch a win.
Since then, James McNaughton is back in the fold and adds a greater scoring threat to an insatiable work-rate among the Loughgiel forwards.
Tony McCloskey carries a muscular presence coming out of defence while Eddie McCloskey still has the brains and touch to pick pocket any defence.
For 'Rossa to book a semi-final spot without Armstrong and Beatty would be one hell of an achievement.
They still have the doggedness and confidence in their ranks to pull it off.
But on the big days, when the margins become finer, you really need your big players in those final 10 minutes.
Rossa have been deprived of theirs, while Loughgiel have no such concerns. That could be the difference at the final whistle.