Club activity is at its height around Ulster at this time of year and while there are quite a few championships titles to be decided around the province the Ulster Club Championship gets underway this weekend with action in both hurling and football. Sunday sees two quarter-finals down for decision with Tyrone champions Eoghan Ruadh facing Armagh winners Keady at O’Neill Park Dungannon. No Tyrone team has won the Ulster title at this grade, though Carrickmore did reach the final in 2015 while it is eleven years since Keady’s name last appeared on the trophy when the Armagh men beat Liatroim Fontenoys of Down in the final. There should be little between the sides but the men from Orchard County might just have enough to go through.
Traditionally Antrim teams have ruled the roost in this competition, the Saffron county sides claiming seven of the last ten titles, but last year things changed dramatically with no Antrim winners at either Junior, Intermediate or Senior. 2009 winners St Gall’s are back on the Ulster stage again where they take on the 2012 winners Lisbellaw of Fermanagh at Brewster Park, Enniskillen. With St Gall’s interest in the Antrim Senior Football Championship having been ended by Cargin last weekend the Belfast men can now concentrate on the hurling and with the likes of CJ McGourty, Tomás O’Ciarran and Aodhan Gallagher in their side they should have enough to book a semi-final place.
In the Junior Hurling Championship Antrim winners, Cushendun set out on a new adventure when they enter Ulster for the first time. The Emmet’s won their first Junior title in 55 years when they beat North Antrim neighbours Glenarm in the county final two weeks ago and would really like to get a run going in Ulster. However, they face formidable opposition in Na Magha of Derry in Sunday’s quarter-final in Ballymena. The Derry city side plays their hurling in Division 4 of the Antrim leagues and won promotion this season after a good league campaign and will feel they are good enough to go through. The Derry champions were runners-up last year against Donegal’s Setanta and also occupied the second step on the podium in 2012 when Bredagh of Down were the victors. They have plenty of experience at this level but if Cushendun can get David Kilgore, Conor McHugh and Donal O’Hara performing as they did in the Antrim decider then they have a good chance of advancing.
Down Junior champions, Clonduff, a club more renowned for its football, and indeed camogie achievements, face Tyrone representatives Naomh Colm Cille at O’Neill Park Dungannon on Sunday in a game that acts as a curtain raiser for the Eoghan Rua v Keady Intermediate game. The Coalisland based Tyrone side play their hurling in the Antrim League and finished in third place in Division 4 but they will fancy their chances against the men from the Mournes in this one.
There is one football fixture in Ulster this weekend where Cavan champions Drumlane play their Monaghan counterparts Emyvale. Junior football is strong in these counties and with the rivalry being intense at county level between this Ulster neighbours this promises to be a tight affair. Emyvale have won the title in 2009 and 2013 and Monaghan teams have a good record in the competition so my vote goes to them to advance this time.
This weekend should have seen the Antrim Hurling Championship decided, but a draw between Ruairi Og Cushendall and St John’s means they have to do it all again on Sunday, with Loughgiel awaiting the winners in two weeks’ time. Cushendall will be the first to admit that they were lucky to get out it that day with a draw, but this weekend’s clash will be equally as difficult. Both sides have lost key players for the replay, St John’s ace corner forward Donal Carson having immigrated to Australia, while Cushendall’s Eoghan Campbell has a broken wrist. This could go either way but I have a feeling Cushendall’s championship experience might just see them through.
In Down, Kilcoo are chasing a seventh Senior Football title in succession when they take on Burren in Sunday’s decider at Pairc Esler at 4 pm. Burren were the opposition last year in the decider when Paul McIvor’s men made it six in a row and indeed they provided the opposition on final day in 2013 and 2014. With former Armagh star, Stevie McDonnell working alongside club legend and former Down supremo Paddy O’Rourke the St Mary’s men have the know-how on the line. They now lie three behind Kilcoo in the all-time honours list in Down and won’t want to fall any further in arrears, and that might be just enough incentive to get them over the line this time and loosen the Kilcoo stranglehold.