GAMES against illustrious hurling lights like Kilkenny at Corrigan Park is why Paddy Burke wanted to play for Antrim as a kid.
On Saturday afternoon, the Cats will roll into west Belfast for the first Allianz NHL Division 1B game of the new season, with Burke insisting that they need to start beating some of hurling’s big guns, not just running them close.
The Saffrons have made significant gains under boss Darren Gleeson, now in his four year, and while they were unlucky to lose narrowly to Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford in last season’s League campaign, they still needed to win a relegation/promotion play-off to preserve their top flight status.
“You look through the fixtures and playing the likes of Kilkenny, Dublin, Waterford, Tipperary – it’s exactly why you wanted to play for Antrim when you were younger, to play at the top level,” said Burke, who is expected to play at full-back this season.
“With all due respect to the Joe McDonagh and playing in the lower divisions - they were brilliant competitions - you want to play the best teams all the time. You want to be testing yourself against the best players. It has been really enjoyable so far and you count yourself lucky.
“But you don’t want to go up and down the Leagues and Championships. You want wins, you want results, you want to be beating these teams as opposed to putting up a good showing.”
Burke is entering his eighth year as a senior inter-county hurler and has witnessed many changes in the county team’s preparation.
In an in-depth interview in today’s edition, the 27-year-old Cushendall defender pays tribute to the work of Antrim’s full-time strength and conditioning coach Brendan Murphy.
Burke feels Antrim have never been better prepared, physically, for the rigours of top flight hurling.
“I know at first-hand the physical work we’ve done over the last three or four years and you’re trying to get to that level of physicality of where the top teams are because when you’re playing them, you’re getting hit, it’s just so physically demanding breaking tackles.
“You need to have the fitness to track and wrestle and then you put your actual hurling on top of that – your decision-making and all those things.
“It is physical and intense and when you’re on the ball how much less time you have to make decisions and making decisions why you’re getting tackled…
“Brendan’s value to the panel and Antrim as a whole is unbelievable, especially with the youth’s athletic development because he’s so knowledgeable.”
Antrim may be without injured trio Conor McCann, Ciaran Clarke and Domhnall Nugent for the visit of last season’s beaten All-Ireland finalists on Saturday – but the Dunloy contingent have re-joined the panel following their All-Ireland Club final loss to Ballyhale Shamrocks while wing-forward Niall McKenna is fit-again after an injury-plagued 2022.
It’ll be the third time in four years under Gleeson Antrim will be competing in Division 1B and courtesy of last season’s Joe McDonagh triumph, they have been promoted to the Leinster SHC round robin series.
“The level of consistency we’re going to have to find will be massive and that’s why we’re putting in the work to make sure we’re at that level and are able to maintain it because showing well in the League is grand, but you want results. We’re all here to get better and better and you really want to leave having cemented Antrim as a Division One team and a Leinster Championship team.”