All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final: O`Loughlin Gaels (Kilkenny) v Cushendall (Antrim) (Sunday, Pairc Tailteann, 1.30pm – live on TG4)
IT has long been standard practice for Ulster’s representatives to go into All-Ireland semi-final weekend as rank outsiders - lambs to the slaughter if the bookies’ odds are to be believed.
How much does that affect the psyche of either, or both? With the hurling heavyweights of Galway, Leinster and Munster also in the mix, a ripple of relief must reverberate around whichever winds up with the Seamus MacFerran Cup holders from up the road.
Complacency? Set up for a fall? Maybe, but experience tells a different tale. With only four Ulster champions – Dunloy (2004 and 2022), Loughgiel (2012) and Cushendall (2016) - having made it to the decider during the past 20 years, and just one returning with the Tommy Moore Cup, the rationale stands to reason.
Of course, it’s a bit more nuanced than that rather crude tale of the tape. St Thomas’s, for example, were 1/5 favourites to beat Dunloy last year – the Cuchullain’s crushed their dreams with a bit to spare.
Bit by bit the gap is narrowing, and Cushendall won’t carry the weight of any inferiority complex when they pitch up at Pairc Tailteann to take on Kilkenny kingpins O’Loughlin Gaels on Sunday.
From their perspective, this campaign is just coming to the boil at the right time; the experiences garnered, the character shown in emerging the right side of close contests seeing confidence soar with each step.
The Antrim final against Loughgiel hung in the balance until the last, but they found a way. Underdogs Portaferry were the better side for much of the Ulster semi-final, leading by four heading towards added time, but Cushendall forced extra-time before kicking into gear.
The provincial decider with Slaughtneil, Ulster champions in four of the previous six years, saw Brian Delargy’s men produce their most complete performance of the season.
Yet still a critical moment of adversity had to be overcome before they got their hands on the Four Seasons Cup for the first time since 2018. Having moved into a three point lead with 10 minutes gone, the Derry champions rattled off 1-4 without reply to assume control.
How Cushendall reacted would say plenty – four scores in the space of six minutes to draw level was the emphatic response. From that point, they didn’t look back.
Add into the mix the loss of club and community stalwart John McKillop in July, and the Ruairi Ogs increasingly have the look of men on a mission.
While Paddy McBurke, Eoghan Campbell and Neil McManus provide a solid spine, this Cushendall side has grown and developed during those years in the wilderness.
Ryan McCambridge is back to his imperious best around the middle, the energy of Ed McQuillan and Ronan McAteer have backboned this year’s rollercoaster ride, while the emergence of schoolboy sensation Joe McLaughlin adds a different, dynamic dimension up top.
Cushendall also look to be boosted by the continued availability of Niall McCormack who, as was the case for the Ulster final, is expected to swap the slopes of Rocky mountain resort Jasper – where he is learning to be a ski instructor – for a roving role in the Ruairi Ogs attack.
On Sunday, though, they come up against an O’Loughlin Gaels side with a similar story to tell. Without a Kilkenny title since 2016, they could only watch from the wings as Ballyhale Shamrocks set a new standard. Until pushing across the line against dogged Dubliners Na Fianna a fortnight ago, provincial success hadn’t been tasted since 2010.
They may not have the sprinkling of attacking stardust that led Ballyhale to three of the last four All-Ireland titles, but an impressive spread of scores across the board compensates for the lack of a TJ Reid-type figure.
Indeed, it was a masterclass from Kilkenny centre-back Paddy Deegan that saw Brian Hogan’s side stun the Shamrocks on county final day. This was their moment and, with Deegan’s added time winner, they seized it.
Having also overcome Kilcormac-Killoughey and Na Fianna to reach Sunday’s semi, there are no lingering questions over how well O’Loughlin Gaels have been road tested.
They stayed calm in the face of a late Kilcormac-Killoughey rally, with the experience of Deegan’s fellow Cats stalwarts key as the Gaels defended for their lives.
Cushendall will have taken heart from the problems Na Fianna caused the Gaels defence with their movement and work-rate, though the fact Sean Currie’s brilliant second half goal was the first conceded in four games says plenty about their stinginess.
Like the Ruairi Ogs against Slaughtneil, though, the response was key – Conor Heary’s superb score steadying the ship as O’Loughlin Gaels shook themselves down and finished the job, 34-year-old captain Mark Bergin leading by example in the heat of battle.
Given how both clubs’ campaigns have unfolded, it is hard to see this being anything but another dogfight, and extra-time would be no surprise. But Cushendall travel to Navan with no fear, believing they may never have a better opportunity than this.