Cushendall target hurling history in All-Ireland semi-final

By Mark SidebottomBBC Sport
Cushendall celebrate winning the Ulster Hurling Championship in October 2015
Cushendall are aiming to add the All-Ireland to the Ulster Hurling Championship won in October 2015

Out there in the January gloaming, Lurigethan external-linkstands sentinel.

The hulking table-topped mountain is immune to the gathering squall which shrieks in off the North channel. The coastal village of Cushendall isn't.

In Páirc Mhuire, storm Gertrude has made a huddle of the hurlers. A human knot woven so tightly that, like the sticks in their hands, they too might have been hewn from some giant swathe of ash.

They are steeling themselves against the night and stealing what warmth they can from one another. This is hurling country.

John "Smokey" McKillop surveys his squad like a North Antrim hill farmer might his sheep. Sarsfields of Galway await in Navan on the first Saturday of February.

"Smokey" doesn't say much, but when pushed ventures: "The only soft thing that ever came out of the west was rain. But hurling is hurling, in these parts it's as old as the hills and in many a man's opinion more important."

Ruairi Og Cushendall will play Sarsfields on Saturday

One such man is Leonard McKeegan. Still lithe and willowy, a veteran of Antrim's run all the way to the All-Ireland final in 1989, Leonard has long since removed himself from the thicket of players. A call from "Smokey" prompted the lone wolf to return to the pack, as a mentor.

Leonard views a "press man" like he might a policeman, with suspicion. Leonard doesn't say much,

"This storm will blow itself out but our boys won't, they have it in the lungs and the have it in the legs, they're an unbelievable bunch."

To watch Terence "Sambo" McNaughton hurl for club and county was a quite an experience. An All Star from another generation, he was a force of nature.

He pushes the Ruairi Og players at a frenzied pace, urging them to grasp a place in GAA history.

"History boys, history. No-one from this club has ever played in an All-Ireland club final, no one. You boys can make history, but sport does not guarantee you a second chance."

Surgery and medical science have given Shane McNaughton, Sambo's son, a second chance. Still a few years shy of 30, his career has been blighted by serious injury. Shane is what students of the game might call a " stickman" - wristy and lightning sharp and on his day unerringly accurate.

Neil McManus of Ruairi Ogs is also captain of the Antrim county hurling team
Neil McManus of Ruairi Ogs is also captain of the Antrim county hurling team

During a recent lengthy rehabilitation, he decided to try acting. It came naturally and he has since strutted his stuff at Belfast's MAC theatre and will soon appear in a production at the Lyric.

He will make his TV debut shortly in the next series of the popular BBC drama The Fall.

"It is only a small part but Jamie Dornan, Gillian Anderson, it's all a little surreal," he said.

"So then, hurling or Hollywood" ? I ask

"Not sure how long the body will let me go on, but right now its hurling. I love it."

A pillow of cloud is massing over Cushendall bay, the trees are forty shades of green and the sky fifty shades of grey

Neil Mc Manus and Aaron Graffin are two of the last men to leave the field, one a captain, but both leaders.

Graffin, plagued by a chronic knee injury, recently came through a good workout against Cork. He would go through a wall for Cushendall and his "big mate" would be right behind him.

Neil McManus' first senior outing for the Ruairi Og's came before his first shave. This evening he is wearing such an abundant beard he could comfortably double as Leonardo Di Caprio in the Revenant.

Aaron Graffin will lead out Ruairi Ogs for their semi-final against Sarsfields
Aaron Graffin will lead out Ruairi Ogs for their semi-final against Sarsfields

Both men will shortly take six months away from the game to travel the world, but for now it's the short trip the changing rooms

In the club house kitchen, the Kearney boys are sweating more profusely than any of the players.

Brian, the chairman, has rocked up with a bumper basket of bread-rolls and a steel pot as big as a fishing trawlers belly. Niall, his cousin, is stirrer-in-chief.

"Steamed Dover sole tonight?" enquires one of the squad.

"Chicken and pasta," says Niall, wielding a huge wooden spoon.

"It was chicken last night," comes the retort.

"And it will be tomorrow," replies the makeshift chef.

Elliott, the BBC cameraman, and I are invited to dinner.

The servings are generous, as are the people of Cushendall. The Ruairi Ogs, just one win away from hurling's top table. Here's hoping we all get to pull up a seat one last time.

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