Tailteann Cup semi-final
Antrim v Laois (Croke Park, Sunday, 2pm, Live on RTE2)
LAST year, Antrim and Laois left Croke Park on Tailteann Cup semi-final day disappointed, but one will enjoy a much happier Sunday afternoon this year as they meet for a place in the final.

Both teams have reached this stage via the scenic route, coming through tricky home preliminary quarter-finals and then scoring big wins on the road in the last eight.

Therefore, both will eye Sunday’s game as a huge opportunity to reach the decider against Down or Sligo who meet in the second semi-final on Sunday.

Antrim have gone through the competition undefeated, with their draw against Sligo not enough to secure top spot in their group on scoring difference, so were tasked with a game against London that was a lot tougher than many anticipated, but they got the job done.

Against Fermanagh last weekend, they proved their fighting qualities to come back from seven behind and stun their hosts.

A big reason for that was the introduction of Peter Healy, Conor Hand, Dominic McEnhill and Eoin Hynds, so manager Andy McEntee will have a decision to make whether the quartet will be held in reserve or given the opportunity to start this week.

As for Laois, their group campaign wasn’t quite as smooth as they lost to Fermanagh and drew with Carlow, but their win over Wicklow was enough to see them into second place.

That left them with a home game against New York in which they were pushed, but ultimately came through.

Not many were predicting them to get the better of Kildare in the last eight, but goals from Mark Barry and Evan O’Carroll proved the difference as they stunned the Lilywhites and booked their return to Croke Park.

It isn’t exactly bonus territory for them or Antrim this week as both were determined to get back to semi-final day and prosper this time around.

Last year, Antrim fell short against eventual winners, Meath, in a game they will have felt they could have won, but it was far from the case for Laois who endured a nightmare afternoon against Down, shipping eight goals in a 22-point drubbing.

Undoubtedly, they will arrive at Croke Park this week with a major point to prove to wipe that game from their memory, so Antrim will face a highly motivated O’Moore team, but then the Saffrons will not need any extra incentive as they too will want to make up for the pain of defeat 12 months ago.

“At this stage, it’s about winning,” stressed manager Andy McEntee after the Fermanagh win.

“We know we are going to have to play better for longer periods again in Croke Park. We aren’t just going there to make up the numbers or get a free trip to Croke Park. At this stage, we want to get a result.”

He is alluding to Antrim’s slow start in Brewster Park, but they ultimately managed to find their stride and timed their run to the finish line to perfection.

Of course, producing week after week is a tough task, but then both Antrim and Paris are in the same boat, playing for a fourth-straight weekend.

There was a very real prospect the semi-finals would be bright forward to Saturday after Wexford lodged an appeal to have their hurling quarter-final against Clare shifted to the Sunday due to their hosting of the All-Ireland Feile na nGael which, if accepted, would have likely seen the Cork vs Dublin game also switched to maintain that doubleheader in Thurles.

Considering the Tailteann semi-finals have taken place on a Sunday since the competition's inception and accepted from early on that would remain the case, it would have been a kick in the teeth to the four counties left in the competition had they been changed late in the day.

But the motion ultimately fell just short of the 60 per cent needed in a specially convened Central Council meeting on Sunday evening, meaning this weekend’s schedule remains as planned.

Bringing the Tailteann games forward by one day may not seem like a huge deal, but aside from the better profile of staging them on Sunday, the extra day’s rest for teams like Antrim and Laois who have been on a hectic run makes all the difference, especially for Laois who played Kildare on Sunday.

Antrim had just a six-day turnaround between the London and Fermanagh games and that decision was not one that impressed McEntee.

“Why we had to play on the Saturday, having been out on Sunday last week is beyond me,” he reflected.

“That was our third game in 13 days and next Sunday will be our fourth in 21, so it’s a matter of getting fellas recovered and up for a game in Croke Park.”

But motivation should not be an issue considering the opportunity ahead.

The wide-open spaces of Croke Park could suit Antrim’s pace on the front foot, while there may also be a little more room for Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann to prosper on the edge of the square.