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Antrim hurlers' future looking bright

By Declan Bogue

With Ulster teams heading into the last round of regular league fixtures of the National Hurling league, it is time to see how they are progressing prior to the rounds of league finals and promotion/relegation play-offs.

ANTRIM

This year started with the pleas of captain Neil McManus and manager Kevin Ryan for patience, emphasising that Antrim were a team that will develop over the next few years into a side worthy of challenging at a higher level.

The problem with this approach is that previous Saffrons managements of Sambo McNaughton and Woody McKinley, Dinny Cahill, Jerry Wallace and now Ryan have all come in with a 'jam tomorrow' philosophy. It's fine and well building for the future but that rhetoric can make for a jaded fanbase.

It also runs the risk of subjecting young players to demoralising defeats.

However, while Cahill may have been able to tease out one-off results in the Championship, it should be borne in mind that Antrim are operating at a higher level than the old Division Two that Cahill managed in.

In league games to date, Ryan has experimented with line-outs and on occasion has even put on players who were already substituted, such as in the case of Neil McManus and Jackson McGreevy.

All this wild experimentation has to lead somewhere, and it has been loosely identified by some players that in two years' time the likes of Shane McNaughton, McManus, PJ O'Connell, Aaron Graffin and the likes will be at their peak of 27/28. Their talents will be augmented by the emerging Ciaran and Conor Johnston – two players of the highest quality – along with the likes of Stephen McAfee, Conor McAfee, Ciaran Clarke and McGreevy.

In the meantime, it would do no harm for them to retain their status in Division 1B. The good news is that after the shadow-boxing of this weekend, they will meet Offaly in the relegation play-off at Ballycastle, a ground which proved sticky in more ways than one for both Wexford and Cork this season.

Positives: The nurturing of young talent proceeds full steam ahead.

Negatives: Could have really done with closing out either home game.

DERRY

Two wins and two losses in Division 2A – within the company of Liam MacCarthy Cup teams Carlow and Westmeath – underlines the hot and cold nature of Ger Rogan's side.

Perhaps embarrassingly for the GAA, on the same weekend that additional funding was announced for Westmeath to take them to the next level, Derry turned them over to the tune of 12 points, away from home.

Rogan (pictured) would dearly love to be able to play the likes of Chrissy McKaigue and Sean Leo McGoldrick – who are committed to the county footballers, but the continuing absence of Slaughtneil hurlers who gave Loughgiel moments of apprehension in the Ulster club final last winter is a handicap he could do without.

Derry meet Kildare; bottom of the table and without a point this weekend and another win would do wonders for the confidence of this group.

Positives: Holding their own in vaunted company.

Negatives: Need to tempt some stay-aways into the fold.

DOWN

Winning four out of four does not bring the reward they thought it might as defeat this weekend to Meath could hand the Royals the momentum to win a league final and therefore deny Down promotion.

There is much to admire from Down this season, including the performances of former South Down players Paul Sheehan, Donal Hughes and John McCusker.

The scrapping of South Down also presumably frees up some of the hurling budget for them to play with.

Selector Paul Flynn seems to have taken on greater involvement this year, most noticeably in a motivator-type role, and the work he is doing on the training field has received generous praise from the players.

Positives: Many and plentiful with a flawless league campaign to date.

Negatives: Could really do with the return of Paul Braniff, while the absence of Gareth Johnston could be felt in summer.

ARMAGH

Late in making a managerial appointment and while John Lennon is a good fit for this panel, there is a slight sense that the recent gains and progress have somewhat stalled. Such is the make-up of the hurling leagues, when great strides are often followed by chastening seasons of inertia.

Have difficulties at the back in terms of organisation but have an attacking thrust with the likes of Mattie Lennon and Conor Corvan.

Will have to improve before they enter the Christy Ring Cup later on.

Positives: Have blooded a few youngsters this season.

Negatives: A demoralising league campaign will do nothing for the morale.

DONEGAL

Won the Nickey Rackard last season and have elected not to make the step up, instead defending their trophy.

Opening wins against Fermanagh and Longford provided an injection of confidence that was stripped away by a comfortable win for Roscommon.

However, they recovered strongly to defeat Monaghan with a comfortable margin last weekend.

Positives: In a good position to make it to a league final with a win over a weak Louth side.

Negatives: Will be missing Danny Cullen, an important figure within the team.

MONAGHAN

The Oriel county edged out Longford, Roscommon and Louth, and each of those games required mental resolve with the tight margins.

Lost a bit of ground however with defeat to Donegal last weekend.

Need results elsewhere to go their way to creep into promotion contention, but manager Joey Morris has already admitted the main focus of this weekend's clash against Fermanagh is to gear up for the Nickey Rackard Cup.

Positives: Hugh Byrne is delivering serious performances from the dead ball.

Negatives: Stagnating in Division 3A for another season.

FERMANAGH

With the absence of Declan McGarry from the line-up last weekend, they fell to a heavy defeat to Roscommon, whose early scoring blitz meant the game was practically over by half-time.

Will look to get something from a potentially tough afternoon in Clones this weekend to get preparations for the Lory Meagher moving.

Positives: Barry Duffy and Marty Beggan have come into the team and have managed to deliver on their potential.

Negatives: Too many injuries, the latest to full-back Eoin Morrissey.

TYRONE

Playing in the basement league of Division 3B, Tyrone only get three games, therefore promotion is absolutely necessary to gain more esteem and promotion.

Positives:Have won both games to date and look likely candidates for promotion.

Negatives: Not enough games.

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