Jerry Wallace calls on Saffrons to raise game
Antrim manager Jerry Wallace has been laying down the law firmly in training as he hopes to mark his Championship debut in the Leinster series with a win over Westmeath at Cusack Park, Mullingar today.
And even though Cormac Donnelly will be conspicuous by his absence from the full-back berth because of injury, the Cork man has selected a side that is garnished with experience and imbued with scoring power.
The Saffrons got the better of Westmeath in the Qualifiers last year, but it’s unlikely that the midlanders will be as ineffective this time round.
Wallace has tweaked Antrim’s style of play to such an extent that the ploy of utilising space to the maximum is beginning to pay handsome dividends.
Wallace admits that Antrim, who recorded just two league wins, will be judged on their performance in the Leinster Championship rather than on how they play in the Ulster final, to which they gain automatic entry.
“Since entering the Leinster Championship a few years ago Antrim have not quite delivered on the promise they have shown so maybe this year we will be able to take things on a bit,” muses Wallace.
“What I want us to do in Mullingar is to make a statement that we can be serious contenders for the Leinster title”
Antrim field a particularly impressive full-forward line in Darren Hamill, Liam Watson and Shane McNaughton and if they are plied with generous possession, then they could inflict severe damage on the home defence.
Watson’s stunning exploits during Loughgiel’s surge to the All Ireland Club title served to thrust him up among the country’s elite marksmen and Wallace is naturally hopeful that the gifted full-forward can give free range to his explosive talents today.
It’s not just in the full-forward line that the northern representatives boast skill and power.
DD Quinn brings vast experience to the goalkeeping berth, Aaron Graffin and Neil McManus supply both bulk and brain in defence, Barney McAuley and Paul Shiels epitomise flair and endeavour in midfield and Michael Herron’s work-rate at wing-forward could prove vital in linking defence and attack.
Westmeath know they will have to engage a much higher gear than they have done to date this year if they are to come out on top.
They will certainly require big performances from Brendan, Murtagh, Philip Gilsenan and John Shaw while the younger players such as Niall O' Brien and Robbie Greville have the ability to create problems for the Saffrons.
And this is something of which Wallace, is acutely aware.
“We know that Westmeath will not be easy to play against, but this is a big opportunity for Antrim. What I am saying to the lads is — ‘let’s take it,’” said Wallace.
That might be easier said than done given Westmeath’s determination to make up for last year’s defeat at the hands of the Saffrons.
Veteran forward Brendan Murphy makes no bones about the team’s ambitions.
“We are relishing taking on Antrim. Last year we were caught in the headlights a little, after doing so well against Galway and not getting over the finishing line,” he insists.
“We thought we'd get a result in Antrim last year and were perhaps a little overconfident. This year, even since that Division 2A league final defeat to Carlow, training has picked up. That was a disappointing setback but all the lads are really looking forward to this game and, please God, we'll come out on the right side.”
Murtagh, so often his team’s top scorer in major matches, adds: “Antrim have some very good hurlers, but we love playing in Cusack Park, especially against the bigger teams. We're really looking forward to the challenge.”
Antrim: D D Quinn; J Kerr, C Carson, A Graffin; M Gettens, N McManus, N McAuley; B McAuley, P Shiels; M Herron, B McFall, E McCloskey; D Hamill, L Watson, S McNaughton.