Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final
St John’s v St Gall’s
(Saturday, 4pm, Sarsfield’s)
MAKING predictions in what has already been an unpredictable and thrilling Antrim Hurling Hurling Championship can prove foolish and St John’s attacker Domhnall Nugent is keen to downplay the favourites tag imposed on his side ahead of their battle against St Gall’s.
Ordinarily, the Johnnies would be fancied to win against the 2018 Intermediate champions, but an injury crisis at the Milltown Row side has left them hugely understrength according to manager Chris Dornan.
It isn’t in the NSA of any St Gall’s team to throw in the towel and they’ll make life incredibly difficult for St John’s at the Bear Pit on Saturday evening.
Dornan stressed that, with a full deck to pick from, St Gall’s would be fit to compete with the best in the county. Unfortunately for St Gall’s that simply won’t be the case this weekend.
An exhaustive injury list has reduced Dornan to the bare bones.
“Against Cushendall, we were down eight starters and seven who would be on the panel – so 15 players in total,” said Dornan.
“We still managed to get 24 players stripped out, but it is hard playing the likes of Loughgiel and Cushendall when you are missing so many players each week.
“We got away with it against Naomh Éanna a bit as we are probably a bit stronger than them. Against the top sides, you need your best team out and a bit of luck.
“Against Loughgiel, we didn’t have the luck when we’d a goal and a point disallowed at the start.
“Cushendall played very well, but I felt we could have scored more. Our decision making was a bit off on Sunday. We’ll have to remedy that before Saturday.
“Marty Burke (Cushendall full-back) is a good mate of mine and I told him that, if we were able to get our full strength team out, we’d give any team in Antrim their fill. I’m not saying we’d beat them, but we’d be able to compete.”
As for his squad for Saturday, Dornan will be praying the dual players came through Wednesday night's Antrim SFC clash win at Naomh Éanna unscathed.
However, a trio of players are already ruled out and a host of other are carrying knocks.
“Niall O’Neill is our captain and our quickest man-marker. He failed a fitness test last week and Cushendall after picking up a rib injury against Naomh Éanna,” added Dornan.
“Conor Burke may have to have surgery on his hamstring.
“Karl Stewart (broken foot) will be out for the rest of the season and Tomás Ó Ciaráin (hamstring) are still out.
“There is a good chance Niall (O’Neill) will be out and Sean Burke (hamstring) is very doubtful as well.
“CJ McGourty should be ok – we rested CJ and Aodhan Gallagher against Cushendall as they’d three or four games in 10 days.
“There was no point in risking those boys when they have a football game on Wednesday night (tonight) and quarter-finals in football and hurling this weekend, they needed the day off.”
Despite the bleak outlook offered by Dornan, St John’s ace Domhnall Nugent insists the Whiterock Road outfit cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security.
He also offered a forthright assessment of his side’s performances in the Championship to date – claiming the Johnnies have to improve if they’ve aspirations of lifting the Volunteer Cup.
“I don’t think we have a right to be taking any team for granted,” said Nugent.
“In our last results, we beat Rossa by a point, drew with Ballycastle and got beat by Dunloy handily enough.
“Even some people in our own club have been mentioning us as contenders – based on what?
“In my opinion, we are on a level playing field with St Gall’s and we won’t be taking them lightly.
“Our whole year comes down to this match and we’ll be giving it our all and, hopefully, we’ll come out on the right side of it.
“We went into the Dunloy game looking to win it, but maybe they just wanted it more than us.
“A lot of the goals we conceded were down to individual errors which we’ll have to look at in training.
“The good teams will punish you when you make those kinds of mistakes and, no doubt, St Gall’s will punish us this weekend if we make them again.”
Nugent is one of a host of dual players at St John’s and says the punishing schedule in recent weeks is tough on the clubs promoting both codes, but says it is a better alternative to having no games in light of the recent lockdown.
“It has been tough. We were sitting in lockdown for months then you are hit with all these games,” said Nugent.
“Last week, I hit a break wall, both mentally and physically, with all the game.
“St Gall’s are in the same boat as ourselves – the same for St Enda’s and Rossa.
“We are just glad to be back playing games. Maybe we took it for granted before lockdown so you have to appreciate the games now. It is just very demanding on players at the minute. We just have to clear the heads and try and get the bodies right for this weekend.”
The streaming service offered by Antrim GAA meant that Dornan was able to watch a re-run of the St John’s and Dunloy game on Sunday evening and he knows the size of the challenge facing his side this weekend.
“I’m sure St John’s would have been trying to knock Dunloy out last Sunday, but Dunloy had to win it,” added the St Gall’s manager.
“It was a proper knock-out game for them. I watched it back last night and they played very well. St John’s had their moments too, but the goals hurt them.
Dunloy have serious pace in their forward line. Yet, 1-17 would win many a hurling match and we know we have our work cut out on Saturday. We are playing three of the top four hurling sides in the county in three weeks.
“Things aren’t getting any easier for us, but these are the games you want to be playing in.”
Dornan will be keeping his fingers crossed that skipper Niall O’Neill can recover in time to return to the fold.
Having been ear-marked to track James McNaughton against Loughgiel, he would be the ideal candidate to pick up Conor Johnston on Saturday.
St John’s will be keen to erase the memory of Sunday’s defeat to Dunloy and return to the semi-finals and set up a clash with Loughgiel.
They have the strongest form and have fewer injuries to their squad and, barring a major upset, they ought to prove too strong for St Gall’s.