Hurling & Camogie

Antrim face uphill struggle with improving Kilkenny

Kilkenny's Martin Keoghan is tracked by Niall McKenna, Ryan McGarry and Gerard Walsh during the NHL meeting between the sides in February Picture: Seamus Loughran
Kilkenny's Martin Keoghan is tracked by Niall McKenna, Ryan McGarry and Gerard Walsh during the NHL meeting between the sides in February Picture: Seamus Loughran

Leinster Senior Hurling Championship round three: Antrim v Kilkenny (Sunday, Corrigan Park, 1pm)

THE last time the Kilkenny hurlers rolled into west Belfast just three months ago there was a chance of Antrim catching them cold.

The Cats travelled without TJ Reid, Eoin Cody and Adrian Mullen – the Ballyhale attacking trio who were still enjoying the after-glow of their All-Ireland final win over Dunloy.

It was also Kilkenny’s first competitive game in the post-Brian Cody era.

But, as it turned out, Derek Lyng’s men were well able for Antrim in their Division 1B opener, almost surprising their hosts with a radical shift in style.

“We just lost our shape chasing their new game,” Antrim manager Darren Gleeson said after the six-point defeat.

“We ran everywhere after them into different corners and they worked their way out of it. It was triangles and movement and because of that we lost our shape and found ourselves out of position.”

Billy Drennan and Paddy Deegan broke Antrim’s resistance that day – but Kilkenny are definitely stronger now, as you’d expect, as the Leinster SHC round robin series hots up with Reid, Cody and Mullen moving nicely.

After an anemic display in the League final against an in-form Limerick side, Kilkenny have picked up three points out of four in Leinster so far.

They didn’t need to get out of third gear in their hammering of minnows Westmeath [0-29 to 0-7], while they let Galway off the hook in Nowlan Park last weekend, with Lyng insisting their impressive second half conversion rate was enough to warrant a win rather than draw.

It’s inconceivable Kilkenny and Galway won’t finish first and second in the group of five, with Antrim probably feeling that they could easily have been exerting more pressure on the pair after two games that has yielded just one point.

Antrim’s best performance across two halves of hurling in 2023 was in the drawn game against Dublin at Corrigan Park.

The key to that fine display was the intensity with which they started against the Dubs, and they didn’t really let up for the rest of the game.

To stand any chance of putting away a vulnerable Wexford team down in Wexford Park was gone after they reverted to their renowned slow starts to games. And it killed them.

Rory and Jack O’Connor had field days and fit-again Lee Chin hurt the visitors from placed balls. A nine-point half-time deficit was too much to turn around as Antrim won the second half 16-11 and might have snatched victory had they converted a couple of gilt-edged goal chances in the last quarter.

The plus points from an Antrim perspective was their strong finish in Wexford Park, Conal Cunning’s consistency levels, James McNaughton finding his mojo again and the effectiveness of their bench, particularly Loughgiel’s clever forward Rian McMullan who is named to start against Kilkenny tomorrow.

Nigel Elliott's absence, due to a broken foot, leaves a void along the half-forward line, but dirty ball specialist Niall McKenna couldn’t have timed his return to the starting line-up any better after recovering from a hamstring problem.

Sickness ruled out Conal Bohill last Saturday but the St John’s man is straight back in at number seven tomorrow having made the jersey his own this season.

Antrim have expended a serious amount of energy week on week from the start of the year. That’s what they need to do to make the tiniest of gains in the thin air of the Leinster Championship.

As the season progresses, the likes of Kilkenny and Galway can be expected to go through the gears a bit more than Antrim.

It’s hard to know where they can mine any more Championship points as they face-off against Kilkenny and Galway before a meeting with Westmeath in Mullingar that could be the shoot-out that Antrim didn’t want but most observers predicted.

Antrim (SHC v Kilkenny): R Elliott; P Burke, R McGarry, N O’Connor; G Walsh, E Campbell, C Bohill; J McNaughton, M Bradley; K Molloy, C Cunning, N McKenna; C Johnston, N McManus, R McMullan Subs: T Smyth, S Rooney, C Boyd, E Og McGarry, C McKernan, S Walsh, J Maskey, P Boyle, E O’Neill, S McAuley, D Nugent

Kilkenny (SHC v Antrim): E Murphy; M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh; D Blanchfield, R Reid, D Corcoran; A Mullen, A Murphy; T Phelan, J Donnelly, B Ryan; M Keoghan, TJ Reid, E Cody Subs: D Brennan, C Delaney, C Buckley, P Walsh, C Heary, C Kenny, N Brennan, T Clifford, S Walsh, W Walsh, R Hogan