Saturday 1 October 2016

Something is stirring in Ulster club hurling

Published 14/02/2016 | 17:00

There’s a danger that Cushendall’s victory over Sarsfields in the All-Ireland club hurling semi-final might be overlooked
There’s a danger that Cushendall’s victory over Sarsfields in the All-Ireland club hurling semi-final might be overlooked

With everything else going on last weekend, there's a danger that Cushendall's victory over Sarsfields in the All-Ireland club hurling semi-final might be overlooked. It shouldn't be because this was an enormous achievement with the Antrim champions not just defeating the representatives of hurling's most powerful county championship, but giving them a real trouncing.

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Maybe we shouldn't have been so surprised. It's only four years after all since Loughgiel swept to All-Ireland final victory against Coolderry while Dunloy have caused a few semi-final shocks in their time. But the tendency to regard whoever draws the Ulster champions in the semi as home and hosed persists.

It's all very different from Cushendall's campaign in last season's championship which saw them suffer the indignity of provincial final defeat by Down side Portaferry in a game where the Antrim champions would have been the ones in the Goliath position. That was only the second time since 2000 that the Antrim kingpins hadn't successfully negotiated Ulster and might have led to suspicions that there was something freakish about Loughgiel's breakthrough.

There was nothing straightforward about Cushendall's provincial campaign this time around either as they had to go to extra-time to win the Ulster final against Slaughtneil, who were bidding to become the first Derry club to win the title. Slaughtneil took Cushendall to two replays last season and their performances look very good indeed in the light of last weekend's shock result. The Ulster Championship should be worth a close look over the next couple of years. Armagh champions Middletown also gave Cushendall a closer game than Sarsfields did.

For that matter the rude health of the Antrim championship is indicated by the fact that Cushendall only scored single-point victories over St John's and Loughgiel before winning the county final against Ballycastle by 2-16 to 1-15. They are not one of those anomalously outstanding teams who stand head and shoulders over everyone else in their bailiwick, but the product of tough and competitive county and provincial championships.

The survival of hurling in its isolated Ulster heartlands remains one of the GAA's great miracles. Antrim's decline at inter-county level might have inclined the casual observer to believe that the game is on the wane there. But Cushendall aren't the first team to disprove this complacent analysis and chances are they won't be the last.

As for Sarsfields, they'll have to regroup. Unfortunately, the traditional remedy of blaming Anthony Cunningham is not available to them.

Sunday Indo Sport

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