By Michael McMullan
THERE is an even bigger prize for the winners of Sunday’s Derry Senior Hurling final with a passport straight through to December’s Ulster final.
In the fixture cycle, it’s the turn of the Derry champions to get a bye with the Antrim and Down winners facing off in the semi-final.
Champions Sleacht Néill are eyeing an 11th successive title on Sunday (Owenbeg 4pm) with rivals Kevin Lynch’s standing in their way.
The Lynch’s are hoping to cause an upset and get their hands on the Fr Collins Cup for the first time since 2011.
Sleacht Néill manager Michael McShane, now in his ninth season at Emmet Park, and has added four Ulster titles to the eight Derry Championships to date.
The Emmet’s were comfortable winners over Swatragh on Sunday and set them up for a fifth successive final with Kevin Lynch’s.
In a new format this season, only the group winners advanced to the final and McShane was a keen spectator at last Saturday’s double header at Owenbeg.
In a group of death that saw Lavey beat Kevin Lynch’s, Lavey were leading Eoghan Rua in the closing stages before conceding a late goal that saw them drop from top to the bottom of the group with the puck of a ball.
“It was mad,” said McShane, who managed Lavey to the 2010 title. “Lavey were leading by two points going into the last minute and looked to be going into the senior final and now they are out of everything on the turn of a couple of minutes.”
Now it’s Kevin Lynch’s in the final, a pairing that was looking unlikely over the last two weeks of sorting out in the group stages.
“Kevin Lynch’s are in the final and it’s the fifth time in a row that we’ve met in the final…we know each other inside out,” McShane said of Sunday’s opponents.
“You know what you are going to get with Kevin Lynch’s and that is a battle. We will have to be up for the battle.
“They put it up to us last year and at half time they were leading. They put us under pressure and we had to come out all guns blazing in the second half to pull away.”
McShane has had to plan without Brian Cassidy this season who is on his travels in Australia. Chrissy McKaigue, Jerome and Shane McGuigan missed weren’t in action against Swatragh.
Oisin O’Doherty was rested to give rookie ‘keeper Conor Coyle a taste of senior hurling and O’Doherty will be expected to return for Sunday.
There was a return for Meehaul McGrath, with Karl McKaigue and Peter McCullagh providing a two pronged attack fed by playmaker Cormac O’Doherty.
“We’ll prepare this week and we’ll prepare very well. As far as we are concerned, it’s an Ulster semi-final,” McShane told Gaelic Life after Sunday’s game at Emmet Park.
“The winners will go to the Ulster final and Kevin Lynch’s will be aware of that too, so it is a double bonus. If you win, you’ll be Derry champions and you’ll be in an Ulster final so we will prepare very diligently for it.
“Thankfully I was there to see Kevin Lynch’s their game and they played some great hurling and they’ve got a lot of great hurlers in their team and we know we’ll be in for a battle.”