BY NIALL SHERRY
ALL PIX DANNY LAHART
Laois champions set to test Shamrocks metal
AIB Leinster Club SHC Final
Croke Park (Sunday 1:15)
Shamrocks Ballyhale (Kilkenny) vs Clough/Ballacolla (Laois)
>>> SHERRY SAYS FINAL PREVIEW…
James O’Connor will take his Shamrocks side to Croke Park on Sunday with one aim – to put the Laois champions to the sword and in doing so, retain their provincial title.
Following an immense battle with Offaly champions St Rynagh’s last weekend, the Waterford native will have spent the last few days assessing his troops and getting fitness updates from the medical team on player availability.
No player will want to miss the Leinster decider, but they will need to be pretty certain that their bodies will stand up to the rigors of a final contest, in what could be another bruising encounter.
At the time of writing, the availability of some players is still unknown. Evan Shefflin left the field late on in the semi-final, and to be fair, it didn’t look good for the marauding wing-back. Colin Fennelly appeared to be nursing his shoulder as he was withdrawn from the action.
Darren Mullen, who was unexpectedly brought into the action around the 53rd minute last week, may be needed from the start on Sunday.
Would there be an appeal on the red card issued to Joe Cuddihy, that automatically ruled the attacking star out of this weekend’s final? More questions than answers, but one thing is certain, the shrewd O’Connor and his backroom team will have hatched a plan to give Shamrocks the best chance possible of continuing on their All-Ireland journey.
The semi-final win saw the like of Eoin Cody and Adrian Mullen excel. Along with TJ Reid and captain, Colin Fennelly, the attacking unit will need to functioning at their highest level to quell the rising threat of Laois champions, Clough/Ballacolla.
Declan Laffan’s side are maybe somewhat, the surprising opposition for Ballyhale on Sunday. They had never won a game outside of their own county until they defeated Rapparees of Wexford in the provincial quarter-final in November, an unexpected win.
They then tore up the script again when they defeated Dublin kingpins Kilmacud Crokes in Portlaoise last weekend to secure their final berth and a shot at the most famous side in club hurling.
Their star man to date has been star forward and captain Stephen Maher. ‘Picky’ as he’s affectionately known, has amassed a decent scoring total in 2021 championship hurling – going into the semi-final with Crokes, he had registered 4-64, incredibly, 4-19 from play. Maher notched another 1-8 in the surprising win over the capital side.
Deadly accurate from the placed ball, this forward certainly knows where the posts are, and the Ballyhale defence will need to stick closely to the dynamic attacker who has been responsible for just over 44% of his clubs scoring return this year.
In centre-forward Jordan Walshe and ‘Picky’s’ fellow corner man Stephen Bergin, they have a potent forward group that can cause problems to any opposition defence.
In Midfield Willie Hyland and Aidan Corby are hardworking runners, who can also take a score. The like of Ronan Corcoran and Brian Cody will likely have a busy afternoon in the middle third.
In Willie Dunphy, like TJ, they have a recently married player who is putting the start of married life on hold while the club championship continues. Have no doubt that both men will have their minds firmly focused on the provincial final come Sunday.
Clough/Ballacolla have won two county titles in the past 6 months, thanks to the pandemic. They could never have expected that 2021 would yield such great days out.
From a Shamrocks point of view, the men called in from the bench have all impacted the games to date. That will give a little more confidence to James O’Connor when he decides on his line out.
The likes of Kevin Mullen, Eoin Kenneally, Eoin Reid, Laim Barron – may all have a role to play at headquarters on Sunday.
Winter hurling is tough, no place for the faint hearted. The conditions that are stars are playing in and on, are accelerators for muscle injuries, the number of hamstrings pulled and torn over the past month will be high. Sunday’s surface should be more conducive to good hurling, and less of the normal mud bath at this time of the year.
Many of the Shamrocks players will have plenty of experience of Croker, and this may help in the heat of battle. The wide-open spaces should suit the likes of Eoin Cody and Adrian Mullen.
Should the Noresiders restrict the impact Stephen ‘Picky’ Maher has on Sunday, they will believe that they have enough in their pack to see them over the line.
Just 60-odd minutes stand between Shamrocks and another provincial title. Since 2006, Ballyhale have collected 10 Kilkenny titles and turned those into six provincial wins and five All-Irelands.
Sunday will test James O’Connor’s team, but as he alluded to following the Semi-final win, there’s plenty more left in the tank from this panel of players.
Another chapter about to be written. Another step on their journey.
Believe in Ballyhale.