Four huge Ulster hurling games this weekend

Joe McDonagh Cup

Carlow v Antrim

Saturday, Cullen Park, 3pm

LAST week, Antrim’s Matthew Donnelly suggested that the Saffrons would be able to compartmentalise their National League promotion to the top tier and fully focus on the McDonagh Cup.

That certainly seems to have happened.

On Sunday past the Saffron hurlers beat Westmeath by 4-25 to 1-15. That’s a significant score. In 2019 Antrim met the same opponent in the league and championship. They lost to them by a point in the league and then were beaten by 0-29 to 0-21. So the win last weekend is very significant because of the margin of the scoreline. That’s a margin of 19 points.

What’s more remarkable is that they were able to do so without Neil McManus who was sidelined with a hamstring injury. That emphasises that Darren Gleeson has a very strong panel at his disposal.

Antrim’s top scorer was Ciaran Clarke, who hit 2-8 and got goals in either half. The Ballycastle man is a livewire and will take some watching this weekend.

There were also strong performances from captain Conor McCann who scored 1-3 while Niall McKenna managed 0-4. Joe Maskey and Gerard Walsh also had very good games.

This is an Antrim team who are confident and should use that momentum this weekend going into the Carlow game. It was also interesting to note that Gleeson sprung a few important men from the bench such as Nicky McKeague, Ryan McCambridge and Simon McCrory. McRory managed to get a point in the second half.

So how do they build on that performance? Certainly their scoring is in very good shape.

However, perhaps a note of caution might be made. Westmeath were handed five defeats in Division 1A of the National League. Then they had a long wait till the return of the hurling season.

They shipped 11-105 during that campaign so their defence can’t have been feeling good about itself.

Yet if Antrim are to take positives they might find it in the relegation play-off that came at the end of the league.

Westmeath played Carlow in that play off and won by 1-17 to 2-8.

Antrim can also take positives from the fact they have had two competitive games in the last two weeks. Carlow’s last match under rules was that loss to Westmeath back in March.

Carlow were terrible in that game, and were well off the pace.

Martin Kavanagh’s entire return of 1-3 came from placed balls, a penalty and three frees. Diarmuid Byrne got 1-1, the goal a clever flick to the net.

Byrne and Chris Nolan, who hit 0-3 against Westmeath, helped Mount Leinster Rangers win the Carlow Hurling Championship in August.

What Antrim will also be wary of is that Carlow were in the Leinster Hurling Championship last year. They lost all four games and were relegated.

They are a team that will be desperate to get back up to the top, particularly after the frustration of losing their place in the top tier  of the league as well.


Christy Ring Cup Round 2A

Down v Derry

Saturday, Ballycran, 1.30pm

HERE is Derry’s opportunity to gain revenge on Down, but even if they win it won’t make up for losing out on promotion to Division 2A of the National League

Nevertheless, John McEvoy’s team will want to go out and put on a performance against Ronan Sheehan’s Ardsmen.

Down got a break last weekend, and might have rested up after their battle with the Oak Leafers.

Derry were due to play Sligo and were prepping for the game when they got the news on Thursday that the Yeatsmen were forfeiting the fixture. Sligo had played and won the league final against Leitrim, but there was a player involved who tested positive for Covid-19. That meant that the county board announced that they could not fulfil the fixture.

So Derry had a weekend off.

Perhaps they took the time to go back over some of the mistakes that were made against Down.

It was the second year in a row that Derry had lost the league final, and it means they have to build now towards next year, and another bid for promotion. Getting up to Division 2A is an important goal for the Oak Leafers. They have a lot of talented young hurlers who would benefit greatly from playing at that higher level.

Yet no doubt McEvoy has extolled the virtues of winning the Christy Ring, as means of progression.

The lessons that they learned in that final against Down two weeks ago included the need to focus on the basics, like taking their free chances when they got them. Cormac O’Doherty was unusually nervy and missed some straight-forward chances. They weren’t accurate from play either.

The positive for Derry was that they were able to rally towards the latter stages of the game. O’Doherty, John Mullan and Paul Cleary were good during that period.

It is also a positive for Derry that they will have a little longer to prepare for the game.

Those players who are carrying knocks, of which Richie Mullan was one, will have time to sharpen up for this clash.

For Down, they also have work to do. Their shooting wasn’t entirely impressive either. They beat Derry by 2-16 to 0-17 but manager Sheehan will probably feel that his team could have scored a good deal more on the day.

Like Derry, Down have some very good young players. Pearse Og McCrickard, Daithi Sands and Eoghan Sands are talented forwards.

They will be going out to add further misery to Derry’s season and if they can build on the performance from last weekend that could very well happen.


Nickey Rackard Cup

Donegal v Armagh

Saturday, Letterkenny, 1.30pm

DONEGAL  and Armagh meet again, almost eight months since they clashed in the National League final and the latter will be undoubtedly looking for revenge.

The Orchard county will have been so determined to beat Donegal to get back up to Division 2B, but it wasn’t to be.

Now they have to go up to Letterkenny to take on Donegal in their own back yard.

The venue won’t matter, and Padraig O’Connor’s charges will need very little motivation to get up for this game.

They will believe that they are the better side and what better way to prove it than in this championship clash.

Both sides got a run out last weekend and will have warmed their legs up.

Donegal beat Longford by 2-13 to 1-14. That was a repeat victory after the former side had beat the latter in the league earlier this year.

Donegal had the better of the exchanges in the first half last weekend and led by 0-11 to 0-5 at half time. Declan Coulter had a stand out performance.

What was impressive was how Donegal were able to maintain their lead when it felt like Longford were closing the gap. Ronan McDermott and Ciaran Matthewson were important in that regard as they were able to get scores to keep the distance between the two sides.

Armagh were up against Leitrim who are a Division 3B team, so victory was not a major suprise.

They won by 1-21 to 0-12, and the impressive thing to note was that they had nine different scorers on the day. Nathan Curry hit 0-7, and Martin Moan managed 0-4.

They certainly have the firepower, but can they put it to work against their big rivals Donegal?

A glance at the meeting back in March shows that it was high scoring. However, Armagh relied on five players for their scores.

Dean Gaffney got a total of 0-10 points that day, and Nathan Curry got six.

The story was better for Donegal. Declan Coulter hit 0-10 and Gerard Gilmore got 0-7.

They were two of seven scorers on Mickey McCann’s team. We may get another shoot out in this match. Armagh weren’t really tested last weekend, and Donegal got a better game.

The Orchard have the team to win, and don’t need any motivation, but Donegal might edge this one. But it will be close.


Nickey Rackard Cup

Tyrone v Mayo

Saturday, Omagh, 2pm

TYRONE get to make their first bow in competitive hurling since their 3-16 to 0-25 loss to Armagh in the National League.

Their opponents are Mayo who defeated Monaghan in last week’s Rackard Cup.

Tyrone would have been interested observers in that game. The Red Hands beat Monaghan by 2-17 to 1-7 in February of this year in Division 3A of the league.

Mayo were expected to beat Monaghan, they were plying their trade up in Division 2A of the league this year. Unfortunately for them they lost all five of their matches, but they were up against some seriously good teams like Kerry, Antrim and Offaly.

Mayo will have been glad to get that win over Monaghan as that will have got their confidence back.

The players that Tyrone will have to watch out for this weekend include Shane Boland who scored 0-12. He’ll be the man assigned to take the frees this weekend and Tyrone will not want to give up anything too easy or he will ruthlessly punish them. The likes of Cathal Freeman and Brian Morley were the goal-getters against Monahgan and they will also need to be carefully watched.

Tyrone will look to bounce back from a frustrating league campaign.

A win against Armagh in the final round would have earned them a place in the promotion play off but it was not to be.

They stood out in the league with their scoring and managed 4-101 across five matches.

That superb scoring will need to be evident against Mayo in this weekend’s clash.

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