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Ulster preliminary marked by poor turnout, conditions, play

THE one certainty that could be taken from the opening Ulster Senior Football Championship game between Donegal and Antrim at Ballybofey last Sunday is that things can only get better.

Well, Donegal fans will take some satisfaction in that their team secured a 1-10 to 0-7 preliminary round victory to set up a second round clash with Cavan. But for the neutrals this was pretty awful.

Outspoken Antrim manager Liam Bradley admitted as much, stating: "It must have been terrible viewing because I know I wouldn't have paid in to watch it. Plain and simple, it was brutal. "I was quoted about puke football earlier this week but that's the modern game. That is the way teams are set up. So, unless there is some rule change, you are going to see more of the same, year in, year out."

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Hopefully not. In the lead-up to the game, Bradley had described Donegal's approach as "puke football," which hardly added to the atmosphere.

As it turned out, neither team played they type of football everyone had hoped for. The difficult conditions of wind and rain didn't help matters, but neither did it excuse the lack of composure shown by both sides.

Just 7,385 turned up at MacCumhaill Park, a very poor attendance given that Donegal had only recently claimed the Division Two National League title. The crowd was entitled to expect a lot more.

Bradley is probably accurate in his assessment that sides are afraid to lose. Consequently, the emphasis can be almost totally on defense with teams simply not prepared to take a risk.

Clearly, that was the situation at Ballybofey on Sunday. It was all about retaining possession but the problem, all too frequently, was that neither side was going anywhere.

Donegal, unsurprisingly, weren't quite so negative in their comments. They had, after all, achieved what they had come to achieve by securing a victory and a match-up with Cavan in the next round.

"There were nerves out there, it's championship football." Donegal manager Jim McGuinness explained. "The main thing is that we won the match and we are in the first round proper against Cavan on June 12.

"We have a month to prepare and adjust our game plan to make us better in a few areas. That will be our focus now."

There was another important factor, McGuinness added, in that Donegal went into Sunday's encounter having lost three successive home Ulster championship matches. A fourth such defeat was clearly unthinkable.

Now that they have that monkey off their backs, are we likely to see a different Donegal against Cavan? "Absolutely. There were a number of things we were pleased with today, but in the last third we lacked composure. If we are going to progress in the Ulster Championship, we are going to have to learn, and learn quickly."

To put Sunday's match in perspective, the first score from play did not arrive until the 21st minute from Donegal's Ryan Bradley. His effort helped the home side take a 0-6 to 0-3 interval advantage.

That advantage was extended to 0-10 to 0-4 before Antrim at last managed to put their rivals under some sort of pressure with points from Mark Dougan and Tomas McCann. But Dougan's subsequent red card for elbowing Karl Lacey quickly ended any hopes of a comeback.

Donegal's response was to score the game's only goal in injury time. It came from Mark McHugh who combined with Daniel McLaughlin before driving a low shot into the corner of the net.

McHugh finished as Donegal's top scorer with 1-1, while a largely subdued Michael Murphy contributed 0-3 from frees. Bradley impressed with a couple of points but this was a day when defenses were generally on top.

Antrim hurlers advance in Leinster

THE good news for Antrim supporters came with the victory of their hurlers over Laois in the first round of the Leinster Hurling Championship at O'Moore Park on Saturday night.

The 1-21 to 3-12 success was Antrim's first ever in the Leinster Championship. What's more, it was achieved after trailing by 2-7 to 1-5 at the interval and playing most of the second half with 14 men.

Laois were provided with a great opportunity when Antrim wing-back Neil McAuley was shown the red card five minutes into the second half. Okay, Laois were playing into the wind but really they should have done an awful lot better.

Instead, Antrim took control, using the wind to good advantage, to shoot the next five points. A very fortunate deflected Laois goal from Owen Houlihan did give Laois some hope but Antrim soon got back on top to finish deserving winners.

Antrim manager Dinny Cahill was particularly pleased with the performance of young corner-forward Conor McCann. He made an impressive senior dubut, scoring 0-4 from play.

But full-forward Neil McManus was the man of the match after his contribution of 0-10, eight of which were from frees. Next up for Antrim is a meeting with Wexford at Wexford Park on May 29, while Laois go into the All-Ireland qualifiers.

Tipp edge Dubs in warm-up

TIPPERARY and Dublin played an interesting challenge in Athy on Sunday night, with the reigning All-Ireland champions beating the National League title holders by 3-20 to 0-26.

The difference was Tipperary's ability to score goals. Both teams, however, should benefit from a high-paced game prior to their respective championship openers.

Comerford quits Cats

KILKENNY'S hopes of regaining the All-Ireland Hurling title have been dealt a blow following the retirement of Martin Comerford.

Comerford, the winner of six All-Ireland medals, feels that it is the right time to leave. He said: "I got to play with and play against the very best. The time has come to call it a day."

O'Driscoll's knee worries Leinster

LEINSTER and Munster's advancement to the Magners League final was overshadowed by an injury to Brian O'Driscoll.

O'Driscoll failed to come out for the second half of Leinster's 18-3 semi-final succcess over Ulster at the RDS because of a knee problem. The injury is a massive concern because of Leinster's Heineken Cup decider against Northampton at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff next Saturday.

The prospect of Leinster playing the final without O'Driscoll is unthinkable, such is his status. Leinster now intend giving him every opportunity to recover in time.

Fortunately, the signs were a bit more encouraging as the Leinster squad resumed training, although O'Driscoll did not participate. Officials do not intend making a final decision until closer to the match.

Hooker Richardt Stauss, who sustained a worrying hip injury in the Ulster game, also missed training. But Strauss it expected to be fit, along with a number of other Leinster players who shipped knocks in last Friday's Magners League semi-final.

They included props Mike Ross and Cian Healy, and scrum-half Isaac Boss. So, it was a match that could have had dire consequences for Leinster's Heineken Cup ambitions.

Furthermore, O'Driscoll was involved in an altercation with Ulster's Chris Henry. But there have been no citing issues over the incident.

Quite apart from the injuries, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt felt that the Ulster match was great preparation for the Heineken Cup final. "It was invaluable," he argued.

"There were a lot of things we can take out of it. We did some things really well and we were impatient in other areas. But, overall, it was superb preparation."

In truth, Leinster were much too good. Ulster competed really well but lacked the cutting edge which brought Leinster two tries through Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald.

There only score was a massive second half penalty by scrum-half Ruan Pienaar from several metres inside his won half. That reduced the deficit to 11-3 before Fitzgerald made certain of a Leinster victory with a superb individual try.

Munster, meanwhile, claimed their Magners League final spot with an 18-11 semi-final success over the Ospreys at Thomond Park. This wasn't Munster at their best, but they always looked in control against disappointing opponents.

The performance of the 21-year-old Danny Barnes in the centre was one of the highlights. Barnes, born in New Zealand and raised in Tralee, claimed both of Munster's tries, with the remainder of the points coming from the boot of Ronan O'Gara.

Disappointingly, there was a crowd of only 13,000. No doubt, that will be doubled to full capacity for the final against Leinster at the same venue on Saturday week.

Besides the poor attendance, the other worrying aspect for Munster was an injury to Denis Leamy. He received a head injury which looked quite serious, but a scan subsequently revealed that he will be okay for the final.

Cricketers get boost

IRELAND'S hopes of competing in the 2015 World Cricket Cup have received a considerable boost.

This follows the decision of the International Cricket Council to recommend that there should be some sort of qualifying tournament for the next competition to be held in Australia and New Zealand.

The earlier decision to limit the 2015 World Cup to just the 10 full member nations, ruling Ireland out of contention, had been condemned.

Rovers take Setanta

SHAMROCK ROVERS claimed their first piece of silverware of the season by accounting for Dundalk 2-0 at Tallaght Stadium in the final of the Satanta Cup.

The competition, which also involves teams from Northern Ireland, produced a hard-fought decider. Gary O'Neill scored the opening goal after 65 minutes before Billy Dennehy wrapped up the game with a second in injury-time.

Meanwhile, the Hoops still lead the Airtricity League Premier Division but only by a point from Derry City. Sligo Rovers moved into third spot on the weekend with a comfortable 3-0 away success over Drogheda United.