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Saffrons to turn up heat on Meath in quest for cup glory

By John Campbell

The rich promise of a dual trophy triumph within a matter of weeks is doing much to assuage the disappointment, acrimony and controversy that enveloped Antrim hurling earlier in the year.

Today the Saffrons will meet Meath in the Christy Ring Cup final at Croke Park and then on Saturday week they will confront Derry in the Ulster Championship semi-final in what they hope will prove the prelude to the retention of their title.

Yet the scars that remain from a depressing league itinerary, the unexpected departure of the then manager P J O'Mullan and a ration of internal frustration will ensure that the team remains grounded in its pursuit of what is a significant sporting double.

Dominic McKinley has assumed the role of spokesman for the quartet now entrusted with governing Antrim's on-field activity - Terence McNaughton, Neil Pedan and Gary O'Kane complete the ensemble - and pulls no punches in a stark assessment of the challenge facing the side today.

"It's absolutely essential that we play at full throttle for the entire 70 minutes," insists McKinley.

"We got a right scare against Down in the semi-final. Meath are no slouches, they are tough and tenacious and you know they are going to play to the final whistle."

Antrim will encounter one of their own today as Meath selector and coach Michael McCullough has saffron blood in his veins.

"We would know Michael and he has worked with a few Ulster counties so he has a good pedigree," says McKinley, "I'm sure he'll be keen to put one over on us."

Antrim's recovery from their woeful league campaign has triggered optimism that they can come good today.

Skipper Conor Carson, who scored the only goal in the semi-final against Down, leads a team that is an amalgam of rugged experience and ebullient youth.

Ciaran Clarke's phenomenal scoring feats, Neal Macauley's defensive solidity, Simon McCrory's versatility and the varied talents of the Johnston brothers Conor and Ciaran bolster a team that has rediscovered self-belief

Conor McKinley remains a defensive plank while Eddie McCloskey and Eoghan Campbell bring poise and flair in abundance.

It's 10 years since Antrim won the Christy Ring Cup but while the glint of silverware will do much to brighten the gloom that has pierced the county of late, management spokesman McKinley points out that there is an even bigger prize on offer.

"Our aim is to get back into the Leinster Championship and compete in the top tier of the All-Ireland series," declares McKinley.

"That's where these boys want to be playing their hurling. No disrespect to anyone but we feel we should be moving up there and today we get a golden opportunity to show we can achieve that." Meath were fully extended by an uncompromising Kildare side in their semi-final just managing to come out on top by 1-21 to 0-21. Manager Michael Ennis believes, though, that his side can show the benefits of that high octane encounter today.

"We had to rise to the occasion against Kildare and we will need to go up another level today. I think our semi-final performance shows we are capable of that," says Ennis.

James Toher, who scored 0-12 against Kildare, will present a big threat to the Antrim defence today as will Stephen Morris while Shane McCann, David Donoghue and Damien Healy can prop up the defence.

Joey Keena, Jack Regan and Michael O'Grady are other influential players in the side.

Antrim floundered in the first-half against Down before scoring 1-17 in the second-half.

Today, though, their aim will be to start the match in overdrive and maintain their momentum throughout.

Antrim: C O'Connell; S McCrory, T McCloskey, M Burke; O McFadden, N McAuley, C McKinley; E Campbell, N McKenna; E McCloskey, C Carson, J Connolly; Conor Johnston, S McAfee, C Clarke

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