BY NIALL SHERRY
Shamrocks out to end Naas run
AIB Leinster Club Senior Hurling Championship
Semi-Final, Croke Park, Sunday, 1:15pm
Naas vs Shamrocks Ballyhale
Croke Park will stage a double-header on Suday, as the AIB Leinster Club Senior Hurling Championship reaches the final four stage.
First up at headquarters will be the clash between Naas and our very own Shamrocks Ballyhale.
Following this encounter will come the other semi-final between Dublin’s finest Kilmacud Crokes and Carlow champions St Mullins, scheduled for 3:15pm.
The winners of Sunday’s semi’s will face-off in the provincial final on the 4th December at Croker as part of a finals feast which will also see the football final in a huge double-bill.
But let’s get back to the important business, The Kilkenny kingpins vs the Kildare champions.
Pat Hoban’s charges will arrive at Croke Park, quietly confident, following their easy win over Westmeath side Castletown in the last-eight fixture. Hoban knows that Sunday’s opponents should provide a much stiffer test of Shamrocks credentials and he will welcome that as his side crank up their bid for another All-Ireland title.
The Ballyhale management will have studied this Naas side and have a plan in place that they hope will see them reach the Leinster decider on Sunday week.
As reigning All-Ireland intermediate champions, Naas have taken to the senior ranks with ease. Indeed, their quarter-final win over Offaly’s Shinrone at St Conleth’s Park, Newbridge was a timely reminder to the hurling fraternity that Naas are very much at home at senior level.
Naas’s 15-point win over the Faithful County’s champions, was their first ever victory in senior provincial hurling and there’s doubting the hunger that exists for further progression withing their club.
While Naas stepped on the gas in the final quarter to win out in style, their 5-point half-time lead should have been much bigger, had it not been for some wayward shooting, which saw Tom Mullally’s side hit 7 wides.
With 41-minutes on the clock, the Naas lead was just three points. Mullally’s men will know that they need to take every opportunity that presents itself when they step-out against Shamrocks Ballyhale.
In Tom Mullally, Naas have a talented and driven man at the helm who has stated publicly that his side are not just turning up for the day out at Croker and will not ‘run and hide’ when they face the 8-times All-Ireland champions on Sunday.
The Glenmore man has played a huge part in the Kildare side’s rise and has previous experience of managing against sides from his native county, including his own village of Glenmore at intermediate level last season. Mullally also took charge of the Carlow hurlers recently as well and has plenty of club experience under his belt over the years.
Mullally was instrumental in Cara’s County title victory over Carrickshock in 2013, while he has also tasted provincial success with Mount Leinster Rangers and lost out to the powerful Portuma side in the All-Ireland club final.
Hurling has been on the rise in Kildare, and Naas are one of the driving forces and reasons for this. Having secured four senior titles on the bounce, Naas are a dangerous animal for whoever them face.
Within their ranks, they also possess a couple of dual-stars in captain Brian Byrne and James Burke. Bryne is a natural leader and gives much to the Naas cause with small and big ball. The continued success of hurling in the short grass county also has roots on Noreside, as some Kildare juvenile teams take part in league fixtures in Kilkenny.
Byrne said in an interview recently: “To be fair, Kilkenny are very good. They associated us, looked after us, they accepted us down there, said ‘come on down, we’ll play league games not a bother’.”
An example of this came in 2015 whenNaas beat Ballyhale Shamrocks 6-12 to 0-06 in the Kilkenny Under-16 Division One Shield hurling final.
Out of the squad that togged out for the Kildare champions to play Oylegate-Glenbrien in the AIB Leinster intermediate hurling club final last season, 11 of that panel from 2015 were present.
This Naas side have been brewing together for a while and possess a number key players across the pitch. Everything is held together by captain Brian Byrne.
Alongside fellow dual player James Burke, Byrne gets through a mountain of work for his side and also has the ability to bring others into the game through a nice range of passing.
Naas’s main focal point from an attacking point of view is the wonderfully talented Jack Sheridan. The Christy Ring Cup winner was in fine form as he notched 1-11 in the win over Shinrone last time out. Jack’s accuracy from the placed ball will be key to those in stripes keeping the score board ticking over.
Keeping Jack Sheridan company in the forward unit is Cathal Dowling. The pacey attacker is as adept at creating opportunities for his teammates as he is taking chance himself.
Two of the Naas goals in their quarter-final victory came from surging Dowling runs down both flanks. The clever forward showed great awareness before off-loading superably for both Charlie Sheridan and Kevin Aherne to raise green flags.
In the engine room of midfield, we could see Rian Boran and Simon Leacy link-up. Leacy also managed to notch 2 points from his centre-field berth and the likes of Ronan Corcoran and perhaps Paddy Mullen will need to curb Leacy’s attacking intent.
Wing-backs Harry Carroll and Kevin Whelan also like to challenge their ‘inner Evan Shefflin and Darragh Corcoran’ by getting forward and striking from distance.
Marshaled from No. 6 by Sean Gainey, the Naas rearguard will know that they cannot afford to give Ballyhale’s front six any space, as they saw how ruthless Messrs. Cody, Fennelly, Cuddihy and Shortall were against Castletown.
Between the posts, Cormac Gallagher will need to ensure his puck-outs are up to scratch, as Shamrocks will punish any errors in this department.
Having secured five county titles on the bounce with a convincing win over The Village, Pat Hoban’s men then then comfortably dispatched the challenge of Alan Mangan’s Castletown Geoghegan by an impressive 25 points.
That quarter-final win was secured without the suspended Paddy Mullen and the injured TJ Reid.
The loss of these two players was hardly evident as the Shamrocks dismantled the Westmeath team’s challenge. Both Killian Corcoran and Niall Shortall took their opportunities brilliantly. Shortall finished his days’ work with 1-2 while Killian Corcoran notched 0-3 from midfield.
The more experienced duo of Colin Fennelly and Eoin Cody ripped into the Lake County team who simply had no answer to the twin threats that were hurling at a level way above anything Castletown Geoghegan had ever faced.
Fennelly’s performance in particular did nothing to dampen down the discussion on a possible inter-county return for the big man, who appears to be in the shape of his life as he looks to propel his beloved Ballyhale to a 13th provincial title and beyond.
Beyond is clearly on the minds of this panel of Shamrocks players. It’s never far from their thoughts, what happened in Sunday’s venue last February against Ballygunner when a 9th All-Ireland club title was so cruelly snatched from their grasp.
Indeed, TJ Reid spoke about this after his side had won the county title. The veteran attacking legend made reference to last season’s decider when discussing building on a half-time lead to put games beyond doubt, to ensure there are no ‘Harry Ruddle heroics’.
It will be interesting to see the starting XV that Pat Hoban opts for on Sunday. As mentioned, Naas are certainly a higher caliber opponent than Castletown Geoghegan and Ballyhale will hope to reduce their wide count in the semi-final encounter.
A good stern test for Shamrocks Ballyhale will be the ideal scenario, and I think that Tom Mullally’s Naas will definitely provide this.
Naas will have a better level of physicality than Castletown Geoghegan and their conditioning should mean they remain competitive throughout the contest, but our
Ballyhale boys should have enough in their locker to reach the provincial decider.
>> SHERRY SAYS…
Provincial semi-final time and another Croker date for Shamrocks Ballyhale.
Castletown Geoghegan were never going to lay a glove on Pat Hoban’s men, but there is certainly a heightened level of threat in the form of Tom Mullally’s Naas.
Pat Hoban will have drilled it into his side not to take the Kildare men’s challenge lightly, and we know that they will show the necessary respect to the blue & white stripped outfit on Sunday.
Hopefully TJ will have nursed his muscle issue back to fitness and be available to play some part in Sunday’s semi-final. It’s a sign of a talented panel when you don’t miss the absence of a hurler like TJ.
There could well be more minutes on the pitch for the likes of Killian Corcoran and Niall Shortall who both impressed last time out. It’s also great to see Joe Cuddihy playing again and showing his undoubted talent.
Naas’s dual players, captain Brian Byrne and James Burke will need watched, along with the like of Jack Sheridan and Cathal Dowling.
I’m really looking forward to this clash, and without getting cocky, we also get the chance to see potential final opponents in the game afterwards, should we get the result against the current All-Ireland Intermediate Champions.
Let’s deal with the Naas challenge, then we can plan for a December provincial decider.
• Best of luck to Eddie Scally’s Blacks and Whites who will face the challenge of Dublin Junior Champions Commercials at UPMC Nowlan Park tomorrow. The semi-final encounter is set to throw-in at 1:30pm and the winners will face either Horeswood of Wexford or Louth’s St Fechins in the junior decider.