Slaughtneil and Cushendall braced for Ulster final

2 months ago 76
Slaughtneil celebrate their Derry title triumph in SeptemberSlaughtneil have not played a competitive match since the Derry final on 17 September but manager Michael McShane does not see that being an issue for his squad
Dates: Sunday, 3 December Venue: Pairc Esler, Newry Throw-in: 14:30 GMT
Coverage: Live text updates, report, highlights and reaction on BBC Sport website & app

On Sunday, two titans of Ulster club hurling - Slaughtneil and Cushendall - renew hostilities in a hotly-anticipated provincial decider in Newry.

It is an Ulster showpiece dripping with sub-plots, intrigue and the potential to deliver a blockbuster.

Slaughtneil's staying power at this level is beyond reproach by now. This will be their eighth appearance in the last 10 Ulster finals (they didn't make it in 2014 or 2018).

Their record in that timeframe is commendable if not impeccable: four wins, three defeats. And of course, they remain the only Derry club to have gotten their hands on the Four Seasons Cup.

If you look at the last four Ulster finals they have won, their winning margins have been as follows: seven points (vs Ballycran in 2021), eight points (vs Dunloy in 2019), 12 points (vs Ballygalget in 2017) and four points (Loughgiel in 2016).

However, there is a strong case for suggesting that Sunday's final will be a much closer affair.

When Slaughtneil and Cushendall last met in the Ulster series, in 2015, it was the Antrim side who prevailed by the minimum, 1-24 to 3-17 after a titanic encounter that required extra-time in Armagh.

It was Dall's 10th provincial crown. Slaughtneil had to wait 12 months to finally break through.

Since then, the Derry club have been Ulster's pre-eminent force, but they go into Sunday's reunion with the Ruairi Ogs shorn of competitive action in the 11 weeks since they captured an 11th successive county title with a commanding 3-23 to 1-9 win over Kevin Lynch's.

'Slaughtneil's 77-day down period is not an issue' - McShane

In contrast, Cushendall have since won an Antrim semi-final and final and an Ulster semi-final, the latter two of which saw Brian Delargy's side pushed to the limit, first by Loughgiel in the county decider before being taken to extra-time by Portaferry in an enthralling provincial opener.

While some will feel that edging such ferocious battles will give a sharper Cushendall the edge, Slaughtneill boss Michael McShane sees it differently.

"I recall the day of the Derry final, somebody mentioned that to me that it was 77 days to the Ulster final," he told BBC Sport NI's Mark Sidebottom.

"I took a deep breath because it sounded awful, but when you're a dual club of Slaughtneil's standing and have serious ambitions in the Derry football championship as well, it actually gives them a chance to go and focus on that.

"For four weeks they were focused on the football championship. That journey came to an end and for the last seven weeks we've been able to work solely as a hurling team.

"So it's worked great for us, believe it or not and we don't see it as being any hindrance to us."

Rogers celebrates scoring one of his goals in the Derry hurling finalBrendan Rogers scored 3-2 in Slaughtneil's Derry hurling final win over Kevin Lynch's in September

When reminded that Slaughtneil have yet to overcome Cushendall in Ulster, McShane added: "No, we haven't and there's a first time for everything. When you look back on that final, it was a fabulous game of hurling for the neutral.

"We came out on the wrong side of the result, but that was all about learning for us at the time.

"We came away from it obviously disappointed, but we learned enough to be able to go and get our first Ulster title the next year.

"We haven't come across Cushendall since so we're really looking forward to this Sunday. There's a freshness about it. Dunloy and ourselves have been knocking lumps out of each other for the last four years and are probably sick of each other so there's a freshness about facing Cushendall."

While Slaughtneil have been without the services of distinguished dual players Chrissy McKaigue and Shane McGuigan, their latest Oak Leaf success featured a stunning 3-2 in the county final from Brendan Rogers, who has since picked up his first football All-Star following his Ulster-winning exploits with Derry earlier this year.

Slaughtneil also have the scoring prowess of the talismanic Cormac O'Doherty, who hit 0-7 in their last Ulster final appearance, while McShane was quick to highlight the form of Jack Cassidy, Eamon Cassidy and Ruairi O Mianain as he talked up what he considers the strongest panel of his nine-year reign.

Cushendall celebrate their Ulster final win over Slaughtneil in 2015Cushendall prevailed after extra-time when the sides met in the 2015 Ulster Club Hurling decider

As for Cushendall, Neil McManus - who recently retired from Antrim duty - will hope to replicate the form that helped him hit 1-14 in the win over Portaferry while Joe McLaughlin will attract much scrutiny from Slaughtneil's man-markers after his semi-final haul of 2-5 from play.

"The way it's worked for us this season is different people have hurled well on different occasions," said McManus.

"We'll need more people to play well again because this will be our biggest test of the season, no doubt about that, but that's what a team's for.

On whether Cushendall's 2015 win over Slaughtneil will count for anything, McManus added: "I don't think so. Every game takes on a life of its own and the only thing you can truly prepare for is your own performance.

"That's what we plan to do and bring the best we're able to bring to the table."

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