Bathshack Antrim SHC, Group One: O’Donovan Rossa v St John’s (Sunday, Rossa Park, 2pm)
WEST Belfast rivals Rossa and St John’s go head-to-head as the Antrim Senior Hurling Championship gets underway this weekend with a host of mouth-watering clashes.
With the Dunloy hot favourites to top Group One, both Rossa and St John’s will be keen to make a winning start on Sunday.
When these teams meet, all known form usually goes out the window – such is the way with keenly-contested derby games.
This season, however, the formbook is pretty much non-existent.
Colly Murphy will see his side in competitive action for the first time this season when they line out at Páirc Rossa on Sunday afternoon and he says the fact they had a bye when the leagues resumed last month hasn’t helped their cause.
“It has been hard and it is always the same with a dual club – getting time with the guys to train and play friendlies and stuff,” said Murphy.
“We don’t have the luxury that the likes of Loughgiel and Cushendall have.
“We don’t know where we are, what level we are at and we didn’t have a league game last month.
“We have nine dual players and they were in action last Sunday (against Lámh Dhearg) and most of them have two matches under their belt at this stage.
“This will be our first competitive hurling game of 2020 on Sunday. I think they could have utilised the time given over the clubs a lot better.
“You aren’t doing the club players any favours, especially the dual players.
“I read last week semi-professional League of Ireland players are giving off about having to play four games in 11 days, but some of our players, who are amateur players, are playing four in 11 days including Championship games.
“We have had to prepare as best as can without really knowing how we are going to fare as we haven’t played a competitive game.”
While St John’s defeated Rossa in the group stages of last year’s Championship, they managed to claim a four-point win in the first round of the 2016 Championship, one year after claiming the All-Ireland Club Intermediate title.
However, Murphy feels that Dunloy and St John’s are the favourites to finish first and second and thinks the game against Ballycastle could determine who qualifies for the quarter-finals in third place.
“St John’s will fancy themselves and people who are neutral will probably see ourselves and Ballycastle in a battle to see who goes through in third,” added Murphy.
“St John’s have been knocking on the door in recent years and have been pipped at the post in semi-finals by Cushendall and they would have aspirations of going further. We’ve no such aspirations at this moment in time, we are taking it game-by-game. If we get anything from this weekend’s game against St John’s, it will be a bonus.
“St John’s have had a more settled team over the last few years and they would be favourites.
“It should be a cracking game. Hopefully the weather holds and the pitch will be in good nick and it will suit both teams. Hopefully we get a good flowing, hard-hitting game.”
While Murphy might be keen to downplay his sides chances of success, it is harder for his counterpart Michael Johnston to do the same.
If any side is likely to break the North Antrim stranglehold on the Volunteer Cup this season, then St John’s are surely the mostly likely candidates.
Over the last two seasons they’ve taken Cushendall to a replay in the Championship semi-final, only to be denied by the Ruairi Ógs.
Last year in the drawn game at Ballycastle, they finally looked to have done enough to see off the challenge of Cushendall when Padraig Nugent converted a 65 in the fourth minute of injury-time to put the Johnnies up by one.
Still, Cushendall came back and a last-gasp Fergus McCambridge point, which was originally ruled wide by the umpires, was deemed a point by referee Colum Cunning.
Cushendall would go on to win the replay in Dunloy by four points before losing out to Gregory O’Kane’s side in the county final.
Dunloy set the standard once again and are the team to beat in Group 1 and St John’s didn’t exactly made an ideal return to action when they suffered a surprise six-point loss to last year’s Intermediate champions Naomh Éanna last month.
Despite that defeat at Hightown, Johnston feels the playing field has been levelled somewhat by the lack of hurling this summer.
“At least we don’t have to travel too far on Sunday, so that’s a plus,” remarked Johnston.
“There has been no real season so far – the season starts on Sunday for us.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the St Enda’s game.
“I don’t think anybody’s preparation leading into the Championship has been ideal to say the least.
“For the year that it is, nobody is going to be at an advantage in any particular Championship.”
St John’s, along with Rossa and Naomh Éanna, compete in Division One of both codes as well as both senior Championships while St Gall’s are also at senior Championship level in both hurling and football.
The burden on dual players will come into sharp focus in the coming weeks as the new format of both Championships gets to the business end and managers across the board will be hoping their key players remain injury-free.
Johnston is no different in that regard with his sons Ciaran and Conor being among 20 dual players at St John’s.
“I don’t see duality as a burden to be honest. It is part and parcel of who we are,” said Johnston.
“St John’s embrace duality and we’ve 20 players who play both codes.
“There are guys who start on a regular basis for both teams and get a lot of the attention, but we’ve 20 players on both panels.
“It is in the DNA of our clubs and lads coming through are encouraged to play both hurling and football.
“Like every manager, you want to have a full panel to pick from and you need a panel with the run of games coming up. That goes back to your juvenile structure and whoever has the most talented players at their disposal at any given time.
“The key for every time from here on in is trying to remain injury free.”
With three teams qualifying for the knock-out stages, Sunday’s game isn’t the be all and end all for Rossa and St John’s.
The top team in each group goes straight through to the semi-finals with the second and third-placed side qualifying for the quarter-finals.
Yet, nether side will want to give an inch of ground in the Championship arena. St John’s didn’t field Simon Doherty, Conor Johnston or Michael Bradley against Naomh Éanna and are sweating on the fitness of a few established players for Sunday’s opener.
Rossa have no such injury concerns with dual stars Michael Armstrong and Christopher McGuinness returning to action for the footballers in recent weeks.
The Johnnies will rightly be fancied to start their campaign with a win, but if they aren’t at their best come Sunday, Rossa won’t need a second invitation to overcome their rivals.