Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship semi-final
Dunloy Cuchullains v St John’s (Dunsilly, Sunday, 4.30pm, live on Pairc TV)

AT the business end of the season, games tend to get tougher and that’s certainly the case for the St John’s senior hurlers.

Having claimed a landmark victory over Loughgiel in the quarter-final, they take on current county kingpins Dunloy in Sunday’s semi-final in Dunsilly. It is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The size of the task ahead doesn’t faze Domhnall Nugent one iota. The Cuchullains defeated St John’s in their final group game earlier this month when a tally of 1-26 by the Johnnies was matched and bettered by Gregory O’Kane’s men who hit 2-30.

As one of a number of St John’s players on the county panel, Nugent will come up against several Antrim colleagues on Sunday and it is a challenge he says St John’s will relish this weekend.

“To be the best you have to beat the best,” stated Nugent.

“We are happy to be playing Dunloy and are grateful to be playing in another semi-final. It is great to give people from St John’s another day out. They enjoyed the game against Loughgiel and, after the year we’ve had, it is nice to put smiles on people’s faces again. Hopefully, we can do the same again on Sunday.

“We have plenty of respect for Dunloy. At county level, we’re friends with a lot of them.

“They have maybe eight or nine players in the county panel and we’ve six or seven. We know each other well enough.

“We played each earlier this month and it was a good enough game. We’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain. There is a place in the county final at stake and we haven’t been in a county final in a while.”

Dunloy claimed victory over St John's at Corrigan Park in the group stage

Dunloy claimed victory over St John's at Corrigan Park in the group stage

St John’s lost their final group game to Dunloy, but sealed third place in Group Two thanks to their earlier win over 2020 Intermediate champions Tír na nÓg.

The Whiterock Road side lost out to Loughgiel in an epic semi-final last season when Nugent played on into extra-time despite suffering a dislocated elbow, but the Shamrocks claimed a 2-31 to 5-18 win.

Under the lights at Kelly Park in Portglenone, the sides clashed again on Sunday, September 12. Another fantastic battle ensued, yet St John’s had their noses in front this time with goals from Ciaran and Conor Johnston helping Brian McFall’s side to a 2-21 to 1-22 win.

Nugent feels St John’s will take great confidence from that victory and hopes it will help them overcome Dunloy to book their place in the county final for the first time since 1994’s defeat at the hands of the North Antrim club.

“It is nearly like having the weight of the world off our shoulders now to be honest,” said Nugent.

“Even though we’ve been knocking on the door over the last four or five years in semi-finals, we could never beat one of the big North Antrim teams.

“That was a huge win for us. We didn’t really speak about it, but it was in the back of our minds. The fact that we’ve got over that hurdle was great and there is a good buzz about the club now.”

As with many dual clubs, both sides are carrying niggles into Sunday’s game, but are expected to have a full panel to select from.

Former Antrim star Paul Shiels is expected to start having only featured as a late substitute in the game at Corrigan Park and he’ll add even more firepower to a side laced with attacking talent in the form of Eoin O’Neill, Conal Cunning and Seaan Elliott while Keelan Molloy is more than capable of firing over a few points from midfield.

How well St John’s cope with that threat will go a long to determining if they can pull off an upset and the versatile Nugent may well find himself drafted into the St John’s defence at some stage during Sunday’s contest.

The Johnnies have suffered some heart-breaking defeats at the semi-final stage of the Antrim Senior Hurling Championship in recent times and they’ll need to be at their very best to ensure they don’t suffer a similar fate this weekend.