Hurling & Camogie

Dunloy have the forwards - but St Thomas's carry the hurt for victory

Paul Shiels is struggling with an injury ahead of tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final
Paul Shiels is struggling with an injury ahead of tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final

AIB All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Cuchullain’s Dunloy (Antrim) v St Thomas’s (Galway) (Tomorrow, Croke Park, 1.30pm)

FOR the hurlers of Dunloy, finally getting over the line against Slaughtneil earlier this month was their Holy Grail.

Cuchullain’s leader Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels admitted as much when he said that Slaughtneil had been “living in our heads for five years”.

It wasn’t actually being denied an Ulster title – which all Antrim champions have basically had a divine claim on, bar the very occasional upset. It wasn’t even being denied the chance of featuring on the All-Ireland stage.

It was much more primal than that. It was beating Slaughtneil. Pure and simple. A game that was a means to an end in itself.

The be-all and end-all.

Each of the times this Dunloy team conquered the Antrim SHC, they fell to Michael McShane’s side.

Despite turning the tables on Slaughtneil 12 days ago, it didn’t erase the psychological scars of 2017, nor more specifically 2019 and 2021.

Since that brilliant performance over the Derrymen, the Dunloy management and players will have been trying to get their heads around a new target, a new goal – an All-Ireland title.

The history around the north Antrim club will have helped them think about the wide open highway of opportunity that awaits them tomorrow afternoon at Croke Park.

While Dunloy have never won an All-Ireland, they successfully negotiated All-Ireland semi-finals on four occasions.

Perhaps that sense of history and beating Slaughtneil will have a liberating effect on Gregory O’Kane’s men.

The bookmakers’ odds may beg to differ, but the Antrim and Ulster champions have plenty going in their favour.

For starters, the game is at Croke Park. The heavy sod that comes with winter hurling was cited as one of the reasons why this fleet-footed Dunloy team could never get past Slaughtneil.

Of course, we’re still in the depths of winter – but Croke Park will be pristine as ever and should suit Dunloy down to the ground.

Nigel Elliott, Keelan Molloy, Seann Elliott and Conal Cunning were born to run in the wide open prairies of Croke.

And it is worth noting that Molloy, Cunning and Seann Elliott are well used to the place having sampled Joe McDonagh success there, while Darren Gleeson’s ability to haul standards upwards in recent times has clearly illustrated to Antrim people that there are no superman factories down south.

Molloy and Cunning have thrived in the saffron jersey against some of hurling’s leading lights on the inter-county stage – so they’ll be unfazed by Galway champions St Thomas’s tomorrow.

Make no mistake, this set of Dunloy forwards can win games in devastating 10-15 minute spells. They are that good.

There are a few other elements going in Dunloy’s favour too. The GAA offered the four semi-finalists the chance to play their last four games in early January.

It is understood St Thomas’s were keen to push tomorrow’s semi-final back to the new year, and for obvious reasons too.

The extra couple of weeks might have given James Regan and Shane Cooney – two key players for St Thomas’s - more time to recover from hamstring injuries. As it stands, it looks unlikely that either will play a part tomorrow.

Therefore, the St Thomas’s midfield has a slightly patched-up look about it – but they have no such worries between two to seven and 10 to 15.

County stars Fintan and David Burke are fabulous defenders at full-back and centre-back respectively, with the latter dropping back to six because of Shane Cooney’s absence.

Up front, everything flows through Conor Cooney who has amassed 4-79 during their historic five-in-a-row Galway Championship success, which effectively doubles up as the Connacht Championship.

Enna Burke, a substitute in St Thomas’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Loughgiel Shamrocks in 2013, is another go-to player in their attack, and had a canny knack of producing the goods when the stress tests arrived in the Galway Championship.

And Kenneth Burke showed in the county final replay against Loughrea that he’s no tactical slouch when he moved the towering Mark Caulfield to the edge of the square, which proved the winning of the game.

If Caulfield is moved from the wing to full-forward tomorrow, the Dunloy full-back line will be boosted by their collective display against Slaughtneil as it’s a line in the team that regularly comes under the most scrutiny.

There are no such concerns about their half-back line, led supremely well by Kevin Molloy.

Doubts surround the participation of Paul Shiels, Dunloy’s midfield metronome, but possibly Eoin McFerran and Conor Kinsella could play there with fit-again Deaghlan Smith another option at centrefield.

Shiels could be held in reserve until early in the second half.

It’s quite handy to make a case for Dunloy to upset the odds tomorrow. It’s even handier to make a case for the Galway men to reach their third All-Ireland final since their breakthrough year in 2013, having fallen at the semi-final hurdle a couple of times.

Winning the Galway Championship is no mean feat. St Thomas’s have won it for a record fifth consecutive time. Turloughmore ended their 22-match unbeaten record in the 2022 championship, hammering them by 15 points, but it wasn’t a fatal blow in the round robin series.

Once St Thomas’s reached the business end of the county championship, they were meaner at the back and were never found wanting among their forwards when they needed some inspiration in two tight games against Loughrea.

Arguably the biggest thing in St Thomas’s favour is they know the All-Ireland terrain better than Dunloy.

No matter how many history lessons are thrashed out up in Pearse Park about how the 1990s and early ‘Noughties’ got past the semi-final stages on four separate occasions, this is all new to this group of Dunloy players.

Even though Fintan Burke commented that St Thomas’s “know how to lose semi-finals just as easily as we know how to win them”, last year’s gut-wrenching defeat to Ballyhale Shamrocks must surely be driving them on in 2022.

Last January, TJ Reid broke St Thomas’s hearts with a late goal from a 25-yard free to deny them an All-Ireland final place.

Knowing the terrain, still feeling the hurt of TJ Reid’s dream-buster – St Thomas’s may just have enough to see off the north Antrim men.