Colum Thompson's All Ireland Final Match Preview
Ruairi Og's much anticipated All Ireland Final against Limerick and Munster champions Na Piarsaigh
is now just days away. As always, any Antrim team taking the field in Croke Park against a team from one of hurling's traditional strongholds will go in as underdogs. At least that is what the pundits, the bookies and the experts will tell you. It must be remembered however that they told us exactly the same thing before Sarsfields from Galway were dispatched with the minimum of fuss in the semi final. As Karl Mc Keegan bundled the ball to the back of the Sars net in the dying embers of a swashbuckling victory one radio commentator was waxing lyrical about Cushendall's performance "This is annihilation!” And indeed it was. It must be remembered that the semi final victory wasn't secured by the odd point, it was comprehensive. Teams from Antrim aren't supposed to dominate at this level, it isn't how things are done... usually. Cushendall however ripped the script to shreds.
As far as team news goes Cushendall are actually in a better position now than for the semi final. Paddy Burke and Aidan Mc Naughton have returned to full fitness and will no doubt be pushing hard for a starting berth. The media lauded Ryan Mc Cambridge's performance against Sarsfields but in truth it had been coming. Still under 21, he has always had thrilling potential, the rough edges have been polished over recent years and he has developed into a diamond in defence. If Mc Cambridge is the lieutenant then Arron Graffin is the general at the heart of the Dall rearguard. Calm, assured, courageous and confident. He inspires those around him with the way he goes about his business. Two rocks on which Cushendall supporters will hope the Na Piarsaigh ship runs aground. Paddy Mc Gill and Shane Mc Naughton were superb at midfield against Sarsfields. Mc Gill showed all his class with three superb points as Mc Naughton sat deep, broke up attacks and sprayed passes around like a top class quarterback. It is a joy to see Mc Naughton back doing what he does best after two injury plagued years when many thought he might never pull on the maroon shirt again.
Up front Sean Mc Afee will no doubt take up residence at the edge of the square in the hope of causing the same kind of consternation for the Na Pairsaigh defence that he did for Sarsfields. Neil Mc Manus registered 1-7 in the semi and he will need to hit the same sort of tally if Ruairi Og are to claim victory. He is a consistent free taker, has an eye for goal and certainly won't be overawed by appearing in Croke Park. What Graffin does at the back Mc Manus does up front. He leads the line, sets an example and demands 100% commitment and effort from his team mates. An inspiration.
Na Piarsaigh will look to marquee forwards like Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes for scores. David Breen provides a physical presence around the middle and Casey, Kennedy and Foley keep things tight at the back.
Both teams will enter the final highly motivated.
Ruairi Og have been heartbroken at All Ireland level a number of times over the past three decades. We have had our fill of glorious failures. Na Piarsaigh too have tasted defeat at this level. Twice in the last five years they have won Munster only to loose out at the semi final stage to Loughgiel and then Portumna. An intriguing battle awaits and by 3.30pm on St. Patrick's Day a new name will be etched and coloured ribbons tied onto the famed Tommy Moore Cup. Dare to dream that they will be the maroon and white of Ruairi Og Cushendall.