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Johnston is striving to maintain momentum as Saffrons target decider

Antrim v Westmeath, NHL Division 2A: Cushendall, Sunday, 1.00 pm

By Declan Bogue

If Antrim's clash with Westmeath tomorrow was a soccer match, they would tuck in their full-backs, give their centre-halves a screen and dig in to grind out a draw.

That's all they need to secure their place in the league final of Division 2A, with opponents Westmeath already adrift and Kildare requiring an improbable set of circumstances to sneak into the decider.

However, what is crucial for the Saffrons is to keep the momentum they have been building in their second year of hurling at this level, maintains St John's clubman Conor Johnston.

Last year they were defeated by Carlow, Westmeath and eventually London, leading to the resignation of PJ O'Mullan and the arrival of the present management of Terence McNaughton, Dominic McKinley - who has now relinquished his role as manager of Slaughtneil camogs - Neal Pedan and Gary O'Kane.

"We want to stay unbeaten in the league," said Johnston.

"This year has been a great boost. When you win your first match, the whole thing just kicks on. The momentum keeps building after that."

The most encouraging aspect of their run has been how it has come about without the help of key forwards Neil McManus and Christy McNaughton, who have been stricken with early season injuries. McManus broke a cheekbone in a challenge match against Tipperary while McNaughton broke his ankle but is now out of a cast.

"It's not a negative, it's a positive," Johnston, a second year trainee teacher in St Mary's College, insisted.

"Those ones not being there has given others a chance. And the lads have taken their chances, they are fighting hard, so those coming back are going to have to fight for their spots.

"It's encouraging. The group haven't been discouraged that they have not been there, it's more that they are glad when they are coming back because they can help and strengthen the current team."

In a previous interview with the Belfast Telegraph, joint-manager McNaughton said that they drafted in former Down football All-Ireland-winning captain DJ Kane to assist in their physical preparations, and admitted there was very little hurling done in the early months of pre-season.

Normally players hate that approach, but Johnston believes it has benefits.

"We went out last year for the Championship and we were not fit. We hadn't enough training done, hadn't enough running done," he said of a summer campaign that brought controversial defeat in the Christy Ring final to Meath at the second attempt.

"We took too long at the start of the year to get lads back in order. It's mostly hurling now with a bit of running. But I can't complain, it's been good.

"When we were doing the running, the weather wasn't that great anyway. So even if you were hurling, it might not have been that beneficial.

"It wasn't good for the hands, it was freezing. Now, the weather is picking up a bit and it is easier to do a bit more hurling."

Elsewhere in Division 2A, Armagh's survival will depend on their ability to avoid a heavy defeat against Carlow, to put it bluntly.

With the Barrowsiders likely to win the game hosted at Netwatch Dr Cullen Park, Armagh's survival at this level will come down to scoring difference against a London team who, like Armagh, are on a single point.

It's an all-Ulster clash at Portaferry tomorrow between Down and Derry. Both teams are out of the running for promotion on four points each heading into the final regulation league game of the year.

Both teams may examine the depth of their squad before they gear up for the Nicky Rackard (Derry) and Christy Ring (Down) campaigns, both of which commence on Saturday, April 22.

It's all to play for in Division 3A when Monaghan host Tyrone in Inniskeen. Should the Red Hands spring a surprise, then they will go into a league final against Donegal, who should account for pointless Louth.

One rung down, Fermanagh face Leitrim in a dead-rubber match, Longford and Warwickshire having already qualified for the league final.

However, the sides will meet on April 22 for their Lory Meagher opener.

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