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Saffrons are keeping cool as hat-trick bid ramps up

 

By John Campbell

Antrim are in the throes of one of the busiest periods they have ever experienced at this particular time of the year, but you certainly won't hear too many complaints from either players or management.

With promotion to Division 1B in the league already secured, and a 16th successive Ulster title pocketed, morale is understandably high for what is hoped will now be a hat-trick of achievements.

Today the Saffrons meet Down in the Christy Ring Cup semi-final at Cushendall in the knowledge that they hold the whip hand over their opponents, and conscious that a meeting with either Wicklow or Carlow in the final at Croke Park could bring down the curtain on their season in spectacular fashion.

Yet with memories of last year's controversial setback against Meath in the decider still raw, there is not the slightest bit of complacency within the Saffrons camp as they face into today's assignment.

Instead, realism and caution temper their approach to a game that can shine a light on the current standard of Ulster hurling.

Team management spokesman Dominic McKinley said: "There's no doubt that the players have been involved in a very heavy schedule lately and that can prove a telling factor.

"We have had a tough few weeks but we know our players still have the confidence and belief in what they are doing. It is not going to be easy against Down because we know they will be fired up for this game."

If Antrim have thrived collectively of late, then on an individual front the accolades have been flowing in. Conor Johnston was recently named on a GAA.ie Team of the Week, while just this week John Dillon took delivery of the latest Ulster GAA Writers' Association monthly merit award, thus following in the footsteps of goalkeeper Chris O'Connell who was similarly honoured earlier in the year.

Dillon, a revelation since being posted at full-back, accepts that while things have "gone well" for Antrim, the side will be taking nothing for granted today.

"The present management have given me and other players a chance and, while things have gone well, we know the challenge now is to maintain our form," said the 30-year-old north Antrim farmer.

Down manager Martin Mallon has had to soldier on recently without some key personnel, but remains hopeful that players such as Gareth 'Magic' Johnston, Paul Sheehan, Danny Toner, Conor O'Prey and Conor Woods can inspire his team today.

Antrim, of course, have already beaten Mallon's outfit earlier in the competition.

Armagh, meanwhile, will go into their Nicky Rackard Cup semi-final against neighbours Tyrone today at Carrickmore (3pm) buoyed by fine victories over Louth and Longford and comforted by the fact that their side is now along rather familiar lines.

Manager Sylvester McConnell stated: "We have been getting players back and I think that the commitment and pride within the side will serve them very well indeed."

David Carvill, Conor Corvan, Nathan Curry, Ryan Gaffney, Cathal Carvill and Dylan McKenna can help bolster the Orchard County's challenge against a Tyrone side that will look to Damien Casey, Conor Grugan, Justin Kelly and Sean Og Grugan for inspiration.

In the other Nicky Rackard Cup semi-final, Monaghan will have home advantage against Derry at Inniskeen tomorrow afternoon (1pm) but this is unlikely to help them survive in the competition.

Derry have scored a total of 10-38 in their last two games against Louth and Longford and this surely sees them entering the contest very much in the driving seat.

In the Lory Meager Cup, Fermanagh will host Cavan at Enniskillen today (3pm).

Antrim (v Down): C O'Connell; S Rooney, J Dillon, S McCrory; Ciaran Johnson, P Burke, O McFadden; C McKinley, P Magill; N McAuley, C McCann, E Campbell; Conor Johnson, N McManus, C Clarke.

Belfast Telegraph

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