KEVIN HINPHEY: My predictions for Ulster club hurling success

The race for Ulster Club honours is firmly underway in the province. the Junior and Intermediate competitions are always fiercely contested between evenly matched teams from across the Ulster counties, with the Antrim, Derry and Down champions competing for the senior crown.

The tie of the round in the opening round of the Junior Championship was the meeting of Setanta of Donegal and Eoghan Ruadh, Dungannon of Tyrone. Dungannon slipped to Junior this year after a surprise defeat to Naomh Colum Cille in the Tyrone championship followed by victory over Omagh in the Tyrone junior final. Both clubs have a lot of players with inter-county experience in their ranks which they hoped would bode well for their chances in the race for Ulster Club success. The teams proved to be very evenly matched, with Setanta inching to a 1-16 to 2-11 victory in Letterkenny.

Two of the other quarter final round ties went as expected with Derry champions having a good win over Warrenpoint of Down at Celtic Park and Antrim champions, Shane O Neill’s, having a comfortable victory against Monaghan representatives Carrickmacross. In the final game of the round Sean Traceys Lugan had a 5-12 to 1-12 win over Cootehill Celtic of Cavan.

The semi-final pairings are now, Na Magha v Setanta and Sean Traceys v Shane O’Neills. Setanta and Shane O’Neills will both be heavily favoured to advance to the final.

In the opening round of the Intermediate Championship Liatroim had a seven-point victory over Monaghan champions Castleblayney in Páirc Elser. The score line of 3-22 to 3-15 indicative of the quality of attacking play on show and a broader reflection of the improving standards at this level.

The standout fixture of the opening round was the meeting of Tyrone champions Carrickmore and last years beaten finalists Lisbellaw of Fermanagh. Extra time was needed to separate the sides with Carrickmore eventually prevailing on a score line of 2-23 to 2-18.

Derry champions Eoghan Rua, Coleraine were in bonus territory heading into their opening round fixture against experienced Armagh champions Middletown. Colerine had a huge victory in the Derry championship shocking Lavey and Ballinscreen on route to a historic victory for the club. Middletown proved a bridge too far for the Coleraine men though, with the Armagh champions winning out 0-19 to 1-13 at Celtic Park.

Antrim champions, Clooney Gaels, enter the fray at the semi-final stage where they will meet Liatroim. Clooney Gaels will be favourites going into the game but the Down men will be determined that they don’t get things all their own way.

The second semi final is likely to be a serious battle between Éire Óg Carrickmore and Middletown. Both teams are laced with players who have represented their counties with distinction over the years. No quarter is likely to be asked nor given when they meet with the result almost impossible to predict.

The senior championship is set to be a cracking competition despite the fact that only three teams are in the race. Sleacht Néill’s defeat in the Derry football final means that they have a clear run at retaining their Ulster Hurling title. They will be happy to have a few weeks to prepare for Down champions Portaferry. A victory in this game would be ideal preparation heading into a final against rivals Dunloy.

Portaferry will feel they have a really good chance this year. They have enough attacking power to cause anyone problems with the Sands brothers leading the charge. The Ardsmen will enjoy the fact that most people are already talking about a Dunloy v Sleacht Néill final.

Unusually football success could be an issue for the Antrim champions. Winning the Intermediate Football Championship is likely to hamper Dunloy’s hurling preparations. If Dunloy advance through the Ulster football competition they will be faced with the challenge of juggling two codes and face some of the issues that Sleacht Néill have proved so able to deal with over the past few years.

Dunloy also have the challenge of a long gap between the Antrim final and the Ulster final to contend with. Challenge games will be played but it is hard to recreate the intensity of championship hurling in these fixtures.

Ultimately it seems set up for Sleacht Néill to retain the Ulster crown. I expect them to win a close game against Portaferry and for this game to give them an edge heading into the final. The move of Shane McGuigan to midfield has worked very well for them and the addition of Ruairí Ó Mianáin at half back has further strengthened their team .

If I was a betting man, I would go for Sleacht Néíll, Carrickmore and Setanta to prevail at their respective levels and be crowned this year’s Ulster Club champions.

An exciting few weeks lay ahead!or all hurling enthusiasts in the province.

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