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Saffrons are excited about their shot at the big guns


By John Campbell

Antrim hurlers will face into a whole new world if far-reaching proposals in relation to the All-Ireland Championship get the green light at tomorrow's Special Congress scheduled for Croke Park.

Under the proposals, six counties - Carlow, Kerry, Laois, Westmeath, Meath and Antrim - will play for a new Championship trophy at a level between the existing McCarthy Cup and Christy Ring Cup, with the winners replacing the bottom team in the Leinster Championship round robin the following year.

In addition, it is being proposed that the All-Ireland Championship proper will be contested by 10 teams, five from Leinster and five from Munster, with the current All-Ireland qualifier series to be eliminated.

For some time now, Antrim officials have been keen to see their county given a window of opportunity to extend their participation in the All-Ireland series, and the probable introduction of a second tier has been warmly welcomed by Dominic McKinley and Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton who form the Antrim hurling management team along with Neal Pedan, Gary O'Kane and the recently-recruited Liam Sheedy.

McKinley is particularly keen to see the Saffrons encounter top-flight opposition for the greater part of the year and, should tomorrow's proposals be approved at Congress, this is precisely what will happen.

"The fact that we will be playing in Division 1B next year and meeting teams like Galway, Limerick, Dublin and Offaly is great, but now the possibility of an additional fixtures bonus in the Championship will really fire our squad up," insists McKinley.

"If the second tier All-Ireland format is approved, this would mean in essence that we will be coming up against quality sides for the greater part of the year.

"We would, of course, also have to defend our Ulster Championship title, and overall we would have a hectic fixtures itinerary, but we wouldn't be complaining."

McNaughton enthusiastically welcomes the possibility that the team which he has served as a player and manager for many years will now get the opportunity to move up in the world.

"I think the proposal relating to ourselves makes good sense and I hope it is carried," he says.

"We would get five good, competitive Championship matches, and this coming on top of our involvement in Division 1B of the league and the Ulster Championship would really provide the ideal itinerary for us."

McNaughton is particularly keen to see players such as Conor Clarke, Paddy Burke, Stephen Rooney and Conor Johnston get the chance to hone their skills against top-flight opponents.

"These and other guys in our squad are chomping at the bit to get tackling the better sides, and that's not being disrespectful to other teams," insists McNaughton.

"If the proposal is passed we would be bracketed in along with teams who are just under the top tier but, like ourselves, do not have a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland title.

"So we are being offered a shot at the next best thing and we would be very keen to avail of this. For too long now Antrim have not been given the incentive to show their true worth, although our inclusion in the Leinster Championship was a step in the right direction.

"We would have to see ourselves as being in with a chance of doing well in the new format and it would be up to us as management and players to make the most of the opportunity if it were to present itself."

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