Cushendall are being driven by 2016 hurt, says Burke
Cushendall v St Thomas, All-Ireland Club Hurling Championship SF, Parnell Park, Dublin, Saturday, 3.00pm
Cushendall skipper Paddy Burke believes his team are getting the opportunity to erase the memory of "three long years of hurt" when they face Galway side St Thomas in the All-Ireland Club Hurling Championship semi-final on Saturday.
It was in a one-sided 2016 decider that Cushendall capitulated to Limerick outfit Na Piarsaigh and since then the Antrim side have harboured a burning desire to return to the biggest stage.
That opportunity is now about to dawn and Burke is convinced that the salutary experience which his side endured against Na Piarsaigh will now prove a catalyst for a much better performance this time out.
"If the truth be told we were beaten by half-time in that game," reflected Burke.
"Na Piarsaigh were ahead by 2-12 to 0-6 at that stage and although they took their foot off the accelerator a bit after the interval, they had the match in their pocket. After that we vowed if we got back onto the All-Ireland stage we would try and do ourselves justice and we are getting this chance on Saturday."
Having claimed the Antrim title again before going on to overcome Down champions Ballycran in the Ulster Club final, Cushendall have rediscovered their poise and confidence but Burke recognises that they will be going in against a side of real quality this weekend.
"St Thomas have shown that they are a particularly strong side, they have a lot of experienced players and they will be very keen to fly the flag for Galway hurling," insisted Burke.
"The fact that we had really tough matches against the likes of St John's and Ballycran will stand to us. At the back of all our minds it has always been there that if we did manage to get back onto the All-Ireland stage of the Club Championship, this would give us the chance to right a few of the wrongs of which we were guilty against Na Piarsaigh."
His sentiments are echoed by his playing colleagues, with Alex Delargy in particular passionate in his desire to see Cushendall make a bold drive to claim an All-Ireland final place on St Patrick's Day.
"There is a great spirit within our side. There were boys with injuries over the course of last year but they worked so hard to get fit for the Championship and now they have the chance to maybe get All-Ireland medals. What could be better than that?" stated Delargy.
"Even players who were injured were still turning out and not only that, they were spurring the rest of us on. There is an incredible camaraderie within the squad."
Delargy, who has been in the Cushendall squad for six years, is convinced that the current line-up is primed for more success.
"I think there is just the right level of enthusiasm, dedication and experience there. A lot of these players know what it is like to lose an All-Ireland final and this is firing them up to try and reach another one so that they can prove themselves at the very top level," stressed Delargy.
The 23-year-old utility player, a joiner by trade, was among those who carried injuries for part of Cushendall's Championship run to date.
"I injured my finger at work and for a hurler that's not something that is easy to come to terms with because you depend so much on firmness of grip and dexterity, but thank goodness I'm over that now. I've played for Antrim at Under-21 and Minor levels, and obviously I would love to get the chance to play at senior level, so Cushendall's Championship run might do me no harm but we will see what happens," added Delargy.
Meanwhile, one of the most prolific scorers in Ulster hurling will be in action when the All-Ireland Junior Hurling Club Hurling Championship final is staged at Croke Park on Sunday (1.30pm).
Fergal Rafter's explosive finishing is one of the chief reasons why Castleblayney will now be taking on Dunamaggin in the decider.
And while Rafter has been the essence of consistency to date, there is no doubt that he will need to be razor-sharp if Castleblayney's Kilkenny opponents are to be brought to heel.
No club side on the island likes to encounter Kilkenny opposition in an All-Ireland final at any level and while Castleblayney are no different in this respect, nevertheless they have no intention of carrying any psychological baggage into the biggest game in the club's history.
While they are by no means a one-man show, Rafter is very much their go-to man, a player who has mastered the art of taking scores from all angles and distances.
Rafter himself is looking forward to bringing his rounded skills to Headquarters.
"It's a great challenge for us," he pointed out. "Obviously when you are going in against a Kilkenny side you are always going to be the underdog but that does not particularly worry us.
"We were not given much chance in some of our games so we are not in the least worried.
"We will be giving it our best shot and if we win it would be a tremendous boost for our club and indeed for Monaghan hurling overall. The footballers are usually in the spotlight but maybe we can steal their thunder this weekend."