Hurling & Camogie

Injury-hit Antrim hurlers face another tough examination against Galway

Antrim's Rian McMullan stays in the starting line-up for the trip to Galway Picture Mark Marlow.
Antrim's Rian McMullan stays in the starting line-up for the trip to Galway Picture Mark Marlow.

Leinster Senior Hurling Championship group stages, round four: Galway v Antrim (Sunday, Pearse Stadium, 2pm)

ONE look at the Antrim hurlers’ starting team to face Galway in Pearse Stadium tomorrow afternoon and you can tell the management team has already one eye on next weekend’s relegation face-off with Westmeath in Mullingar.

It’s the Realpolitik of the Leinster SHC group stages that the Ulstermen have tried to resist for as long as they could.

The truth is, it would take a dramatic shift in fortunes for Antrim and Westmeath not to be occupying the bottom two berths in the six-team round robin table, while Kilkenny, Galway and Dublin battle it out for first and second.

The early optimism Antrim experienced has all but evaporated following their morale-sapping defeat to Wexford in their second group game and the subsequent “mauling” at the hands of Kilkenny in Corrigan Park a fortnight ago.

Back-to-back Championship games against Kilkenny and Galway certainly beats Joe McDonagh fixtures against, say, Kerry and Carlow.

There is inevitable pain along the way but this is the arena where Antrim hurling needs to be in order to improve.

“Antrim are in Division One now,” says former Laois hurling manager Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett, “and it’s a pretty ruthless place.

“Then you’re straight into a Leinster Senior Hurling Championship and that’s absolutely ruthless because the top teams will beat you as much as they can because of their scoring averages. If you get a bad result, it can knock the stuffing out of you and you can fall back and lose self-belief and confidence.”

Plunkett knows this to be true having travelled the same road with Laois for six or seven years out of the last 10 – a county that briefly threatened insurrection against hurling’s bluebloods a couple of times before tumbling back down to the bottom of Division 1B and into the Joe McDonagh.

“There is no stomach from the GAA to promote hurling in any of these counties,” Plunkett claims. “I could quote you so many things…I would like the GAA saying: ‘Here are the things we can help you with to allow you to develop your team to get you up there and to stay there.’

“One of those things would be to give counties like Antrim and Westmeath all home matches. Imagine the boost to the hurling culture there.”

What’s not helping Leinster SHC newbies such as Antrim is the scandalously condensed nature of the split season. It’s okay for the likes of Kilkenny, Limerick and Tipperary to play week on week, but it’s far more challenging for counties like Antrim and Westmeath who are not yet acclimatised to the thinner air and can't expect to have the requisite squad depth.

Throw in injuries to a host of key players and Antrim are up against it even more than they could have imagined as they stare down the barrel of Galway's gun.

Absentees Neil McManus, Eoghan Campbell, Nigel and Seaan Elliott blow large holes in Antrim's starting team - and that's not including long-term absentees, Conor McCann and Ciaran Clarke, who would have added so much to the attack.

Antrim are better than Westmeath and will fancy their chances of remaining in the Leinster SHC in 2024 after next weekend.

That said, Antrim were better than Laois in last year’s NHL campaign and were still ambushed by Plunkett’s side, probably because their O’Moore Park hosts had targeted the game from a distance out.

Under Darren Gleeson, the Antrim hurlers have tried to resist that kind of negative goal-setting and are emptying the tank every time they play – bar the dead rubber in the League against Tipperary.

How competitive Antrim can be against Galway tomorrow is a moot point. But the game gives those players on the cusp a chance to stay in their manager's eye-line for the make-or-break Westmeath clash on May 28.

Ballycastle's highly-rated Tiernan Smyth gets time between the sticks in Pearse Stadium and Conor Boyd gets an opportunity at number six with Campbell out.

Eoin O'Neill of Dunloy will again try to convince his manager that he's more than an impact sub, Domhnall Nugent can get more minutes in his legs while Rian McMullan of Loughgiel is making a right fist of becoming a regular in the Antrim attack.

Galway have yet to hit the heights of last year’s epic All-Ireland semi-final performance against Limerick as manager Henry Shefflin tries to unearth a few more players to make the Tribesmen more competitive this year, with Liam Collins and Declan McLoughlin looking the most capable.

In-form attacker Brian Concannon is not on Galway’s 26-man squad for tomorrow’s encounter, the outcome of which should push Shefflin’s men a good bit closer to a Leinster final berth, but Conor Whelan, Kevin Cooney and Evan Niland will take some stopping in Salthill.

Antrim will want to get out of Salthill tomorrow with as many plus points as possible before setting their sights on Westmeath.

Galway (SHC v Antrim): E Murphy; J Grealish, G McInerney, D Morrissey; P Mannion, D Burke, F Burke; J Cooney, C Mannion; R Glennon, E Niland, C Cooney; K Cooney, C Whelan, D McLaughlin Subs: D Fahy, TJ Brennan, A Tuohey, J Fitzpatrick, S Linnane, C Fahy, T Monaghan, D O’Shea, M McManus, L Collins

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

Conor Whelan (left) has been in brilliant for for Henry Shefflin's Galway Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Conor Whelan (left) has been in brilliant for for Henry Shefflin's Galway Picture: Seamus Loughran.