Catching Kilkenny cold is not out of the question for Antrim hurlers
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim v Kilkenny (today, Corrigan Park, 2pm)
IT doesn’t get any better than the Kilkenny hurlers rolling into west Belfast for a competitive fixture. Kids with hurls and sloitars will peek through the wire at Corrigan Park this afternoon, almost within touching distance of the famous black and amber jerseys.
They’ll see the pale saffron jerseys too, going toe-to-toe with their illustrious visitors, a time and place where a child’s imagination truly takes flight.
“You grow up with your passions, generally,” Antrim hurler Neil McManus said in 2021.
“Every one of the kids that come through the gates of Corrigan Park hopefully will leave wanting to be a player on the field at some point in the future, and that’s the thought we’re trying to leave with them.”
Even in the absence of a new Casement Park, this group of Antrim hurlers have been stretching every sinew over the past number of years each time they’ve played at the intimate Whiterock Road venue.
There’s a core group of hurlers that have been on the Antrim team-sheet for the best part of the last decade.
“We’ve been committed for the right reasons, trying to drive it on, even when results weren’t good and it wasn’t that attractive to be playing for Antrim, that same group was always there,” said Cushendall defender Paddy Burke earlier this week.
“You were committed just as much as anybody, you were putting in the same time and effort but not seeing any joy or return for that effort, you were losing games, getting annoyed and wondering where you were going.
“So, to be where we are at the minute and competing at this level, and now in our third year in Division One, is unbelievable.”
Last season, the Antrim hurlers were winless in Division 1B and needed to negotiate a play-off with Offaly to preserve their top flight status.
Delve into last season’s narrative and gains were made under the wily leadership of Tipperary man Darren Gleeson, now entering his fourth year in charge.
This time last year they lost by three points to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. At Corrigan Park, they lost by four points to Dublin and two points to Waterford.
For the 2023 National League campaign to be deemed a success, Antrim need to turn those narrow defeats into wins.
There is an acute sense that February is Antrim’s time - more than Kilkenny’s or Tipperary’s or Waterford’s - where they need to catch one of the big guns cold to propel their own season.
Draw a line through the Walsh Cup defeats. Antrim's pre-season games were to spread some game-time around to a few new recruits, look what’s in the legs, all done without the automatic intensity that comes with a Division1B fixture.
Of course, Antrim's chances today are impacted by the absence of two of their best forwards – Conor McCann and Ciaran Clarke - both of whom are out for the foreseeable future.
But the Dunloy contingent are back a fortnight after their agonising All-Ireland final defeat to Ballyhale Shamrocks at Croke Park.
No Antrim team can reach its potential without first-choice ‘keeper Ryan Elliott and key forwards Keelan Molloy and Conal Cunning.
It’s anticipated the Cuchullain’s trio will start against Kilkenny today.
Ryan McGarry’s soaring form for Dunloy should see him muscle his way into the full-back line. Eoghan Campbell remains the cerebral hub of half-back line.
Joe Maskey will want to build on his impressive form in midfield and even though there is no McCann or Clarke in Antrim’s attack, they still have a host of quality players between 10 and 15, including the return of break ball specialist Niall McKenna after a wretched 2022 with injury.
Today will mark the official beginning of the post-Brian Cody era in Kilkenny. The Cats produced one of the best performances from a defeated team in an All-Ireland final last year - but it still wasn’t enough to persuade the veteran manager to stay for a 25th year in charge.
Derek Lyng, one of Cody’s trusted foot soldiers during his playing days, assumes the Kilkenny reins, with only nine of the 2022 All-Ireland final panel seeing game-time during the Walsh Cup that included Paddy Deegan, Walter Walsh, Padraig Walsh, Mikey Butler and John Donnelly.
It’s unlikely any of the Ballyhale players will feature at Corrigan Park today, which means Kilkenny’s attack is automatically weakened without Eoin Cody and TJ Reid.
So, there is a chance Antrim could catch the Cats cold and get their NHL campaign off to a winning start.