No surrender as O’Donovan Rossa ready and willing

LIKE their counterparts on the intercounty stage, the Ulster champions are the perennial underdogs of the All-Ireland club hurling championship; a lot of patronising guff in the national media beforehand but, when it comes down to picking the probable champion, never given a real chance.

An Ulster team in the All-Ireland final is almost as rare an occurrence as Haley's comet. At club level, however, a different tale entirely, as pointed out by a wary Adrian Finan.

"In the last ten years, the Antrim champions have won four semi-finals, drew two, lost two by very narrow margins," he says. The reason Adrian is wary?

This Sunday, Parnell Park in Dublin, the team he trains, James Stephens of Kilkenny, will meet O'Donovan Rossa, champions of Antrim and Ulster, in the All-Ireland club semi-final. Given the above evidence of the difference in achievement between inter-county and club hurling in Ulster, Adrian is a worried man.

"That's a better record than most provinces have, better than Kilkenny over the last ten years," he says. "We don't know much about O'Donovan Rossa, we're venturing into the unknown, but one thing we do know, it'll be tough."

All the talk in the lead-up to the club semi-finals has been about Athenry, three-time champions since 1997, about Toomevara, nine times county champions in Tipperary over the last dozen years (they meet in the first semi-final on Saturday, in Ennis), about James Stephens, elite among the elite of Kilkenny and Leinster.

Having overcome Dunloy in Antrim however and it was Dunloy, almost on their own, who are responsible for the Ulster club records over the past decade O'Donovan Rossa can consider themselves live challengers this Sunday, even if no-one else does. Not just dark horses, not pretenders, but legitimate contenders.

Certainly, that is the attitude, and properly so, of team captain Jim Connolly. Speaking earlier this week, when the four captains were introduced to the media in Dublin, he was far more gung-ho than any of the other three.

"We have had the underdog tag all year and it hasn't bothered us at all," he claimed. "Obviously, if this was Antrim v Kilkenny, Antrim would have no chance.

"I don't think there is anything like the same gap in club hurling. Definitely, we're quietly confident. Everybody's confident in their own ability and everybody is playing well. If we do down with anything less than that attitude, we might as well not turn up."

Little wonder then that Adrian is worried. The fact that his side had a tougher passage than O'Donovan Rossa to get through the province and reach this stage is irrelevant.

"That doesn't matter now, the fact is that when Ulster teams reach the semi-final, they've been winning, and that's the crucial statistic. We'd be silly to be treating this with anything other than the utmost seriousness. The lads are all tuned in, they realise it's the opportunity of a lifetime.

"We've waited over 20 years to win a county, win in Leinster, and there's no guarantee that you won't be waiting as long again. These lads don't want to be telling their kids, 'we had an opportunity to win an All-Ireland club title, and we blew it at the semi-final stage, because we weren't ready'."

No complacency in Kilkenny then, no surrender in Antrim.

Game on.

ATHENRY(v Toomevara): M. Crimmons; T. Kelly, D. Cloonan, J. Feeney; B. Higgins, B. Feeney, S. Donoghue; B. Hanley, L. Howley; J. Rabbitte, MJ Quinn, E. Caulfield; D. Moran, E. Cloonan, D. Donoghue.

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