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Antrim ready to smash the old order

By John Campbell

When a team has acquired a certain status in any sport, the path to success can be smoothed either through a benign seeding system, a generous ration of home advantage or deferred action until a competition has reached a certain point.

Antrim will confront Wexford in the Leinster hurling quarter-final tomorrow with the teams entering the contest from sharply contrasting backgrounds.

For the Ulster champions this will be their fifth match in the competition while Liam Dunne's men will be dipping their toe in the provincial waters for the first time.

Yet for all Antrim's reservations surrounding the protracted route they were forced to follow to get this far, the team will still be cushioned by optimism for what is their biggest match of the year.

Historically, Wexford have never held any great fears for the Saffrons and there was certainly no sign of a change in this trend when the Slaneysiders just managed to scrape home by a point in the league fixture between the teams at Ballycastle in February.

While this match served to convince Antrim that they have the potential to outdo Dunne's side on this occasion, it has certainly not bred the slightest element of complacency.

How could it, indeed, since Wexford have beaten both Tipperary and Cork in challenge matches recently, rattling up a particularly impressive score against the former.

Antrim boss Kevin Ryan this week reiterated his desire that Saffrons followers should not expect any quick-fix in relation to the possibility of a major impact being made in the Leinster series and yet his side could not be better poised to make their pitch for national recognition.

Their recent unbeaten run in the Championship which followed Division One survival courtesy of that relegation shoot-out win over Offaly has infused belief and zest.

The perception is that Wexford's recent spell of competitive inactivity may well put them at a disadvantage tomorrow but Waterford native Ryan is all too well aware of their ability to pull top-notch Championship performances out of the bag.

"Maybe Wexford have yet to show their hand in the Championship but that's all the more reason for us to be very careful. Obviously we saw them at close quarters in the league but this will be a different ball game," insists Ryan.

Wexford may have been living in the shadow of hurling's aristocrats of late but they still possess the kind of players who can parade their talents to devastating effect when the chips are down.

Keith Rossiter is one of the most experienced defenders in the country while Lee Chin, Andrew Shore and Ciaran Kenny form a dynamic half-back line that will make life difficult for a youthful Antrim half-forward division comprising Conor McCann, Conor Carson and Ciaran Clarke.

Wexford, too, are not short on energy and craft at midfield where Diarmuid O'Keefe and Henry Kehoe will bring their combined talents to bear on Eoghan Campbell and Ciaran Johnson and it will certainly be interesting to see how the Antrim pair fare here as they are normally seen in defensive roles.

Up front, Rory Jacob, Jack Guiney and Podge Doran will carry a big threat although Antrim possess their own firepower in PJ O'Connell and Paul Shiels.

Antrim's recent busy schedule has allowed their younger campaigners to grow into the inter-county sphere.

The game represents an important milestone in the development of the side and Ryan certainly hopes that this will be just another step in what is proving to be an exciting journey.

Antrim: C O'Connell; O McFadden, C McKinley, M Bradley; A Graffin, N McAuley, N McManus; E Campbell, Ciaran Johnson; C McCann, C Carson, Conor Clarke; C Johnson, P Shiels, PJ O'Connell.

Wexford: M Fanning; L Ryan, M O'Hanlon, K Rossiter; L Chin, A Shore, C Kenny; D O'Keefe, H Kehoe; P Morris, P Doran, J Guiney; R Jacob, C McDonald, L Og McGovern.

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