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McCrory relishing Carlow challenge

Antrim's Simon McCrory says the Saffrons won’t lack in motivation when they take on Carlow in Saturday’s decider Antrim's Simon McCrory says the Saffrons won’t lack in motivation when they take on Carlow in Saturday’s decider
By Paddy Tierney

Christy Ring Cup final: Antrim v Carlow; Saturday, 5pm, Croke Park

RARELY do teams meet four times in the same season let alone twice in the one Championship campaign but Antrim and Carlow are set for their second Christy Ring Cup clash on Saturday evening at Croke Park.

The Saffrons are unbeaten in their previous three starts against the Barrowsiders and appear to hold their upper hand, but the close-knit nature of the meetings suggest another close battle is on the cards. When the sides met in the league back in February, they couldn’t be separated at Netwatch Cullen Park and it was no great surprise to see them contesting the NHL Division 2A final in April. Antrim sealed a return to Division 1B thanks to a 2-12 to 0-15 win and a performance which owed as much to determination and perseverance as it did skill.

The fact that the Saffrons needed extra-time to beat Carlow in the Christy Ring Cup opener only reinforces the notion that Saturday’s decider will be nip-and-tuck. Antrim captain Simon McCrory know his side will need to be on top of their game if they are to go one better than last year’s controversial replay defeat to Meath and get their hands on the Christy Ring Cup.

“It hasn’t been talked about much, but it is still in the back of everybody’s mind,” said McCrory. “We were in good positions to win in both games and we let that slip. “In the last couple of games, when we have been in good positions, we have been pushing on and finishing off teams.

“Subconsciously, we know now that you can’t take your foot off the gas when you’re four or five points up – you have to keep pushing on. “We had to learn the lessons of last year – if we didn’t, the results would be the same.

“I think this year has been very positive. We have a strong panel and we have players who want to commit themselves. “Last year we weren’t fit enough and we weren’t clinical enough.

“We might have a slight advantage because we have gotten over the line against them a few times this year, but that won’t count for much – it is a Championship final and everybody will be giving it their all. It will be a hell of a tough game for us.”

McCrory admits that Antrim’s fitness levels contributed to their disappointing 2016 campaign – something the management team quickly put right during the winter months. This year, Antrim are on the verge of securing a treble of the National League Division 2A title, the Ulster Championship and the Christy Ring Cup. Yet, McCrory feels the added incentive of playing in the forthcoming All-Ireland SHC Qualifiers will see both sides giving it their all on Saturday.

“We want to get back to playing in the Leinster Championship and this is the only way we can do it. That it our goal and I am sure it is Carlow’s goal,” said McCrory. “It is hurtful when you see another team celebrating – especially twice.

“It is motivation for us – we want to win the Christy Ring Cup and get back into Leinster. “Not only is there silverware, but there is the big carrot of maybe getting a huge draw in the Qualifiers. “It is massive and that’s what is driving everybody on at the minute. We have to earn it and Carlow will give it everything.” He added: “I think the training in general this year has been good. Everybody has been held to account for how they conduct themselves in training.

“That honesty and commitment has helped us. Pre-season was a hard grind, the fitness work, but it is standing to us. “When the game is in the melting pot with 10 or 15 minutes to go, there is still that wee bit left mentally and physically because we have been there before. “We’ll be fresh and ready to bring that to the Christy Ring Cup final.”

The importance of Saturday’s decider isn’t lost on the Antrim skipper who wants to secure Liam MacCarthy Cup hurling, not just for the next generation of players, but also to entice other players in the county to commit for the 2018 campaign. “We are back to playing in Division 1B and it would be another boost to get back to playing in Leinster. “What hurler wouldn’t want to be there? That is my thinking on it.

“Obviously, players have their own commitment and that, but if we went back to the shop window looking for players next year, it would be a big incentive. “If you’ve any ambitious as a hurler, you would want to be there

“We also know that there are great young hurlers coming through in the county and we want to get back to the top tier for those players too.” The St John’s clubman added that winning would be a fitting way to repay the faith shown by the management quartet of Terence McNaughton, Dominic McKinley, Gary O’Kane and Neal Peden. “They came in at a time when there wasn’t too many people putting their hand up for the Antrim job,” stated McCrory.

“It wasn’t the most attractive job at the time, but it shows the mark of the men. “When things were tough, they put their shoulder to the wheel. “They showed faith in us and we are repaying them with honesty and commitment. “When I joined the Antrim panel back in 2007, we were playing at the top level and we want to leave Antrim hurling back where we found it and we would to repay ‘Sambo’, ‘Woody’, Gary and Neal because they are great Antrim hurling men. It is no more than they deserve.”

While Antrim are sweating on the fitness of utility man, Conor McKinley, Paul Shiels is expected to be fit to play some part while Matthew Donnelly is sidelined with a knee injury. At times during both games against Meath last year, Antrim illustrated a liking for the wide open spaces of Croke Park.

It is reasonable to assume that the in-form pairing of Conor Johnston and Ciaran Clarke will put Carlow’s defence under serious pressure. Antrim have already proven that they can contain and overcome Carlow and perhaps the biggest challenge for the Saffrons on Saturday will be putting the memories of the 2016 finals to rest. If they can do that, they should continue to hold the upper hand on the Barrowsiders.

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