Dunloy, Ballymena

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Battle for 'Big Ears' in Ballycastle

The two sides tussle for possession in the league encounter in Loughgiel.

The Antrim hurling season reaches a long-awaited climax this Sunday with the staging of the Bath Shack SHC Final in Páirc Mhic Uilín, Ballycastle, as two familiar foes go head to head.

The last ten years have been good to Ruairí Óg and Loughgiel Shamrocks.

In that decade they have met in the final on five occasions, with the Shamrocks victorious on four of those occasions, the exception being in 2008 when the Páirc Mhuire residents recorded a nine-point victory over their opponents. Both have also featured in an All-Ireland Club final within that period, Loughgiel of course victorious in 2012 and Ruairí Óg finishing runners-up in 2016 to Na Piarsaigh of Limerick.

Loughgiel's group stage threw in with a facile victory over relegated Rossa in Belfast, before they were stretched by a St John's team ever-growing in reputation and confidence, eventually pulling away to seal victory by a three-point margin.

James McNaughton, Man of the Match from the Semi-Final.

The Shamrocks had looked on enviously as Ruairí Óg and Cúchullain's Dunloy contested the 2017 final, with their neighbours and fiercest rivals claiming the silverware last September. This time they lay quietly in wait and ambushed Dunloy in the Semi-Final, stifling their gameplan and allowing James McNaughton's unerring free-taking to point them to glory.

Cushendall battle Dunloy in their opening group game.

Cushendall approach the final having laboured through the championship. An opening-day defeat to Dunloy without their talisman Neil McManus and the tigerish Arron Graffin preceded a picnic in the Bear Pit, as McManus returned to go viral with his hand pass for Fergus McCambridge's goal.

With the group stage complete, they descended on Dunloy for the first chapter of an epic encounter with St John's. Having trailed the Whiterock Road men for most of the match, the introduction of Donal McNaughton and Alex Delargy proved crucial as they both hit late scores to see their team leading in the final minute, only for Ciaran Johnston to demonstrate nerves of steel to level the match in the dying seconds.

Ruairí Óg and St John's battle for possession in the drawn game at Pearse Park.

The replay in a surprisingly clement Ballycastle was to prove equally as absorbent as the drawn game. A blistering start saw a rampant Ruairí Óg race into the lead, but as the half wore on it was the Belfast men who wrestled back the upper hand before taking the lead early in the second period with goals from Barry McFall and Peter McCallin.

Back came the 2014 and 2015 champions however, and with Conor Carson's move to the edge of the square came the winning of the game, the big man first getting his hurl to a high ball and diverting it home, before hammering home the clinching goal minutes later to leave the Johnnies heartbroken.

Both sides boast a healthy blend of youth and experience. Although missing the influential Barney McAuley through a long-term Achilles injury, Loughgiel can call on the wise heads of Joey Scullion, Liam Watson and Eddie McCloskey, men who have a wealth of hurling knowledge to impart on their young guns.

James McNaughton and Tiarnan Coyle have made a big impact this season, with the former's accuracy from placed balls metronomically consistent, only missing one in the swirling North coast wind the last day out.

Daniel McCloskey, who was Man of the Match in his side's league victory.

In their forward line, Daniel McCloskey has already proved his prowess against Cushendall, hitting two goals in the league encounter, while Donal McKinley and captain Shay Casey are equally potent.

The Ruairí Óg side is similarly well-balanced. Neil McManus remains a consistently good performer, dropping deep in the last game to fill the gap left by the injured Eoghan Campbell and still finishing the game with 0-09 to his name. Sean Delargy and Arron Graffin add experience and steel in defence, while in Paddy Burke they have arguably one of the best centre-backs in the county.

Fergus McCambridge carries a forward threat for Ruairí Óg.

Fergus McCambridge, Cormac McClafferty and the wily Donal McNaughton are a big threat in the Ruairí Óg forward unit and can do damage from anywhere, while Alex Delargy can turn poacher in the blink of an eye should he have recovered sufficiently from the injury suffered in the Semi-Final.

Loughgiel manager Johnny Campbell will be flexing his tactical muscle against a former manager in Eamon Gillan on the Cushendall line. With both teams so evenly matched, the managerial battle could be where the game is won and lost.

The Shamrocks were perfectly prepared and set up against Cúchullain's in the Semi-Final and Campbell will have had ample opportunity to study the Cushendall set-up, given the replayed Semi-Final.

Conor Carson's intervention sealed Cushendall's final place.

Gillan has shown the tactical nous on two occasions to be able to alter the narrative of a game with an adept change at the right time, the introduction of Natty McNaughton and the positional switch of Conor Carson proving crucial to their respective games.

A prediction in a game of this magnitude is almost obsolete, but I can't quite shake the feeling that Loughgiel's tactics and personnel have a slightly more settled look than their opponents and that could just give the Shamrocks the extra edge on Sunday afternoon.

Either way, it will be a packed, and possibly windswept Ballycastle that could witness another epic encounter between two determined sides for the honour of lifting the Volunteer Cup once again.

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