Bathshack Antrim SHC quarter-final
St John’s v Ballycastle McQuillan’s (Dunsilly, Sunday, 1pm)

A MEETING with defending champions Dunloy is the prize on offer when St John’s take on Ballycastle in Sunday’s first Antrim Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final at Dunsilly on Sunday.

The Johnnies will enter the game as favourites to advance, but they have been completely decimated with injuries with the list growing longer rather than clearing up.

Already, the Corrigan Park men were without Antrim stars Domhnall Nugent and Conall Bohill, with Aidan McMahon then sustaining a damaged kneecap against Naomh Éanna that will see him join the long-term list.

If that wasn’t enough, Conor Johnston took a knock against Cushendall that has since transpired to be a broken wrist, leaving the Johnnies with a headache heading into Sunday’s game with a number of regulars set to watch from the sidelines.

Manager Brian McFall reports that Jack Bohill may be back in contention having recovered from a collarbone injury, but has been cursing his luck that has seen his squad decimated at the worst possible time of year.

“I have never seen a year like it with injuries,” he said.

“It’s been constant. Conor Johnston took a knock against Cushendall, went to the hospital on Saturday and now he’s in a cast with a broken wrist.

“The list is as long as your arm, but you get that when you are going in hurling and football, playing two games per week. It’s given lads chances who haven’t been in contention before so that’s what a panel is for. We keep dipping into it and getting more injuries, but you just have to get on with it or else you’ll end up beating your head off the wall.”

Despite their bad luck, the Johnnies must still focus on the task at hand this weekend as when they face a Ballycastle team that comes in with issues of their own.

Count star Ciaran Clarke is another Antrim star who has picked up a serious injury over the past few weeks and is done for the year, but in his absence, the McQuillan’s put two heavy Group One defeats against Dunloy and Rossa behind them to bounce back with a thumping victory over Carey to reach the knockout stage.

The Johnnies opened their campaign with a home win over Loughgiel before taking Naomh Éanna apart to secure knockout hurling, but missed out on top spot and a bye to the semis with defeat in Cushendall in their final game.

“We were happy with how things were going, but we had a blip - a bit of an off-day - against Cushendall,” McFall reflected.

“A few things went wrong and we just didn’t play to the game-plan that we put out. In that aspect, it was disappointing and the lads know themselves they didn’t perform anywhere near their capabilities, so there have been lessons learnt.

“It would have been a great position to be in if we were straight through to a semi-final as it would have given us more rest, but then you have four weeks without a game, so this weekend is another game that will do us no harm.

“We’ve picked ourselves up, put in serious training over the week gone by there and they’ve responded well.”

While St John’s have their injury issues, they still have plenty of quality in their ranks ready for the weekend including the Bradleys - Michael and Aaron - Peter McCallin, Ciaran Johnston, Shea Shannon and the accuracy of Oisin MacManus.

They will be many people’s tip to reach the last four although McFall insists they are looking no further than Sunday as Ballycastle proved in that big win over Carey when the pressure was on.

It’s time for teams to deliver as defeat means the end of the season, so the immediate task is all any team will be focussing on and while wary, the Johnnies will travel to Dunsilly with confidence they can march on.

“There is no safety net now, so it’s into full championship mode and we’re aiming to go and put in a good performance to get the win,” McFall accepts.

“We’ve still got plenty of smashing hurlers on the team but we haven’t seen too much of Ballycastle this year.

“They needed a big performance against Carey after the drubbing they got against Rossa, but responded well. They have ‘Clarkey’ (Ciaran Clarke) missing which is a big loss for them, but they still have a bit of experience with Neal McAuley there who has a smashing hurling brain, plus a lot of young lads too.

“We are just looking at ourselves to get right to have a go at it on Sunday and if we deliver a good performance, we’ll be there or thereabouts.”