Allianz Hurling League Division One, Group B
Antrim v Laois (Corrigan Park, Sunday, 1pm, Live on BBC IPlayer)

A LEAGUE game with a Championship feel is perhaps the view of Sunday’s Division One, Group B clash between Antrim and Laois at Corrigan Park.

The situation is quite simple and familiar for both: win and Division One hurling is secured, while a defeat and it’s into a relegation playoff against the bottom team in Group A - most likely Westmeath.

A draw on Sunday will see the issue roll onto the final round of games with Antrim, currently with a scoring difference of -17, hosting Tipperary and Laois (-45) away to Dublin.

Neither side will be thinking about a draw this weekend although given the tight nature of meetings between them, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if that was the outcome either.

Although both have lost their three games to date, Antrim have been much closer to getting a result - their eight-point defeat against Waterford a fortnight back the biggest margin despite being level with 10 to play.

Laois were in the hunt at home to the Decies with a quarter of the game remaining in round two, but faded badly and ended up 12 adrift, that came coming either side of heavy losses to Tipperary and Kilkenny.

Yet form has usually gone out the window when these two teams meet and with so much at stake, there will be no lack of intensity and desire as a relegation playoff hanging over the head of the defeated is not what is desired with the Championship beginning to come into view.

“It’s a huge game for both teams,” said Antrim manager, Darren Gleeson.

“From the outset of the League, people would have looked at it as the key fixture but we were hoping to have picked up a couple of wins along the way. That hasn’t materialised so we’re in a one-game shootout.

“Every game is so important as the consequences for winning and losing are massive. We’ve played to a decent level this year so far, so if we can play to that level again we’ll be in with a big shout.”

Antrim will be without team captain Eoghan Campbell who was sent-off in the first half against Waterford and his absence from centre-back will be keenly felt, not just for his leaderships, but also his ability to drive the team forward.

Michael Bradley slotted back to fill the hole in Dungarvan and may get the nod there again, but Campbell is now the only absentee as Seaan Elliott - who was withdrawn at half-time in Waterford with a concussion - is following return to play protocols.

His Dunloy clubmate, Phelim Duffin - who was concussed against Dublin - has returned to training and is in contention, while Conor Johnston and Domhnall Nugent are close to a return from injury.

The long-term list includes Conor McCann and Ciaran Clarke, while Sarsfield’s midfielder Daniel McKernan has undergone a knee operation that will keep him out.
Conor Boyd and Eoin McAlonan remain sidelined, while Eoin Trainor and Christy McGarry will be focussed on Saturday’s Ulster U20 final.

“There’s a lot going on injury-wise, but we just have to balance that,” Gleeson accepts.

“Neil McManus came off in the Waterford game with a calf injury and hasn’t trained since, so we’ll have to make a call on him by Thursday night. We’ve a sharp injury list, but it’s an intense period for guys.”

Against Waterford, Ballycastle’s Tiernan Smyth got the nod in goal ahead of Ryan Elliott and Gleeson was happy with what he saw from the man who is better known as a corner-forward at club level.

“Tiernan started the last day and had been playing really well,” Gleeson explained.

“We are looking to have a strong squad, so himself, Ryan and Paul McMullan are all pushing each other and that’s what we want and what Ryan needs - the competition will bring his levels up.

“Tiernan is a young guy and a very talented outfield player as well. I though the did really well in Waterford for his League debut - his poc-outs were massive.”

Whoever gets the nod in goal and indeed, out the field on Sunday, will have a huge task ahead as first, Antrim must match the intensity Laois will bring.

In the corresponding fixture at O’Moore Park last year with the exact same ramifications, they took far too long to get going and although they got their noses in front late, ended up punished for a mistake with Cha Dwyer nailing a winner.

It won’t be a revenge mission for Antrim on Sunday, but simply a game that must be won to secure their future ahead of the final game against Tipperary that - unless there is a draw this weekend - will have no bearing on the final position on the table.

“A lot of people would say that we didn’t fire, but we weren’t let fire,” said Gleeson of last year’s game.

“Laois brought a massive intensity that we didn’t match. There was only a point in it at the end and there doesn’t seem to be a lot between Antrim and Laois when they play each other.

“We won’t be looking back, just look forward and concentrate on our own performance.”