By Daire Walsh
ANTRIM will face Kerry in the Joe McDonagh Cup final on December 13 after the Saffrons rounded off the group stages of the competition with a comprehensive 2-30 to 3-10 triumph over Meath at Pairc Tailteann, Navan this afternoon.
Requiring only a draw to be absolutely certain of reaching the showpiece decider, Darren Gleeson’s northerners got the job done with minimal fuss. This ensured Antrim finish on top of the final standings, a single point in front of Kerry.
There was a slim chance that Carlow could usurp the Ulster side if they recorded a convincing win against Westmeath at Cusack Park, Mullingar – and Antrim were on the receiving end of a heavy defeat. As it turned out, neither result went the way of the Barrowsiders as their Lake County rivals ended 2020 with an impressive 1-21 to 2-13 success.
It did take a while for Antrim’s challenge to take hold against Meath, however, and they found themselves three points adrift with five minutes gone on the clock. Following traded points during the early exchanges, James Kelly rattled the net to give the Royal County an early stranglehold.
Ciaran Clarke subsequently raised a white flag to supplement his earlier score and James McNaughton also found the target for the visitors. Meath responded with a single of their own, before Conor McCann and Clarke rattled off unanswered efforts to bring Antrim back on level terms in the 10th minute.
Yet, their eastern counterparts weren’t there to simply make up the numbers and three points without reply left the pre-game favourites with something to think about. Michael Bradley did add his name to the scoresheet in advance of the first water break and he doubled his tally in fine style on 20 minutes.
Meath once again responded with three scores on the trot, but this was the cue for Antrim to show their full hand. Niall McKenna grabbed a superb goal to reduce their deficit to the bare minimum and while Meath briefly halted their momentum, Clarke and Bradley split the uprights in swift succession to restore parity just past the half-hour mark.
The longer the action progressed, the more influential Bradley became. He added a two-point salvo towards the end of the opening period and with McCann and Clarke increasing their own personal hauls, Antrim were 1-13 to 1-9 in front at the interval.
The 1989 All-Ireland senior finalists were beginning to play the game on their terms and with McNaughton, Eoghan Campbell and Clarke finding the range, they were firmly in the driving seat for a final place. A Stephen Morris goal on 42 minutes did throw a potential spanner into the works, but this was only a temporary respite for Antrim.
Ryan McGarry, Clarke and Bradley points were followed by a terrific Dan McCloskey goal on the stroke of 50 minutes. This really opened the floodgates and with 0-8 accumulated in 13 minutes, Antrim were home and hosed well before the final whistle sounded.
To Meath’s credit, they continued to persevere and claimed a third goal in the closing moments of the contest. Nonetheless, Clarke (two) and Nicky McKeague fired over late on to give Antrim a handsome final tally and the Saffrons are now a step away from a making a return to the top-tier of the hurling championship.
Finalists in both 2018 and 2019, Westmeath got the better of Meath last weekend and were determined to end the year on a positive note against Carlow.
Shane O’Brien’s men enjoyed a strong start on home soil, before the returning John Michael Nolan found the net on seven minutes to move Carlow back on level terms.
Despite this set-back, Westmeath held firm and Niall Mitchell’s 25th-minute goal propelled them towards a 1-9 to 1-7 interval cushion. Aonghus Clarke was once again in flying form, having stood stall in Navan seven days earlier.
He produced an astonishing salvo of six points on the trot to move Westmeath all of 10 points ahead and on the brink of a comfortable victory in their final game of the competition. Nevertheless, Carlow were resilient and made a real fight of it in the dying minutes.
Jack Kavanagh and Kevin McDonald contributed points to compliment a green flag effort by Jon Nolan. However, it wasn’t enough to deny Westmeath (for whom Clarke finished with an impressive 0-13 haul) a second win in the group and a third-place finish overall.
The big news in the aftermath of the game was the decision of Colm Bonnar to step down as Carlow manager after a four-year stint at the helm. The Tipperary man vacates the role with credit in the bank, having triumphed in the inaugural season of the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2018 and also earned top honours in the Christy Ring Cup 12 months before that.
His departure will leave a considerable void but, in spite of a disappointing 2020, there will be a strong base for his successor to work from.