Battle for the Tom Walsh Cup hots up
BY NIALL SHERRY, SPORTS EDITOR
St Canice’s Credit Union Kilkenny Senior Hurling Championship
> SHERRY SAYS Semi-Final Preview
After some intriguing games and the odd battle along the way, we have four teams still standing in the 2023 St Canice’s Credit Union Kilkenny Senior Hurling Championship. Needless to say, the fab four remaining will all fancy their chances of getting their hands on the Tom Walsh Cup this year.
Despite much chatter throughout the league, current holders Shamrocks Ballyhale have navigated their way to the semi-final stage and have shown that they will not relinquish the title that they have proudly held for the last 5 years. The quest for a sixth consecutive county title is very much still alive. Joining Ireland’s most successful club in the last four are James Stephens, O’Loughlin Gaels and Bennettsbridge.
UPMC Nowlan Park will stage both semi-final ties this Sunday, with O’Loughlin’s taking on the Bridge (1:15pm Throw-in) followed by Brian Cody’s Village facing-off against Shamrocks (3:15pm Throw-in). Both fixtures promise much, and we could be set for a superb afternoon’s hurling at headquarters as a place in this year’s decider is the prize for the two victorious sides.
O`Loughlin Gaels Vs Bennettsbridge
Sunday, 1:15pm, UPMC Nowlan Park
Referee: Conor Everard
This game can certainly hold its own on Sunday’s double bill. Brian Hogan will need to have his O’Loughlin’s side well up for this game, because this Bennettsbridge side are on a mission in this year’s championship.
The city side were given a real test in their last-eight clash with outsiders Mullinavat, but it was a titanic battle in Thomastown and Hogan’s charges got home by just 2 points. Their big players stood up last day out and the county contingent of Mikey Butler, Huw Lawlor and Paddy Deegan helped drive their team over the line and into the last four.
Mikey Butler’s surging runs from the full-back line will be something that Tim Dooley and his management team will need to plan for and ensure that the diminutive Butler isn’t given the freedom of UPMC Nowlan Park, as the corner-back is more than capable of splitting the posts from distance if given the opportunity, as he showed against the Vegas Boys.
One of O’Loughlin’s young guns, David Fogarty who has had a great season to date, is another of their rearguard that loves a long-range score to compliment his defensive nous. Having the experienced Paddy Deegan inside him has undoubtably helped Fogarty develop and cement his place in this side. Another of the rising stars, Jordon Molloy has also been looking sharp this season, and like Fogarty can trouble the scoreboard on a regular basis. Throw Conor Heary into the mix and you can see the strength that the James’s Road side possesses.
As usual, placed ball accuracy will be crucial in deciding the outcome on Sunday, and in Mark Bergin, the Gaels have one of the best in the county. In their recent tussle with the Vat, the centre-forward notched 0-9, six of which came from dead balls. Keeping Bergin company in the forward line is likely to be Eoin O’Shea, Owen Wall and Paddy Butler. Along with Sean Bolger, this attacking unit will look to cause trouble in the Bridge back line and get the scores to give their side a fighting chance of making the county final.
Sunday’s opponents, Bennettsbridge are an improving side that look as if they have a point to prove this season. Tim Dooley and his backroom team, including the motivational Dan Shanahan have a group of players that are hurling well at present and look determined to leave no stone unturned in their desire to claim a county title. The Waterford man’s presence has clearly added much to the Bridge, as indicated when Kevin Blanchfield spoke to the media following their win over a fancied Glenmore outfit.
The Blanchfield influence running through this Bridge team gives it real purpose and ability across the pitch. Midfielder Kevin has been in great nick of late and weighed in with 3 fine scores last day out. Winning the middle third battle will always be key to giving a side the platform to win games and Kevin’s partnership with James Hughes has done exactly that for Tim Dooley’s charges. County star David has been outstanding in defence and his fielding ability is a sight to behold. As we’ve seen on the inter-county stage, David isn’t shy about stepping forward and as we’ve seen on the inter-county stage, David isn’t shy about stepping forward and striking over booming scores from halfway.
Liam’s return from travelling has been a timely boost to the forward line. His ability to win his own ball and constantly trouble the scoreboard means that he will need to be closely watched by the O’Loughlin’s defence, a job which Huw Lawlor might fancy in UPMC Nowlan Park. Liam hit an impressive 1-2 against Glenmore and might take a bit of stopping in this mouthwatering clash.
If Mark Bergin is deadly accurate for the Gaels, Nicky Cleere will look to do the same for his Bridge side. Should Brian Hogan’s side cough up easy free’s you can bet that Nicky will punish these and keep the scoreboard ticking over. Three other names likely to feature on Sunday are Sean Morrissey, Ciaran Brennan and Jason Cleere. This trio have an abundance of ability and pure talent to cause even the best defender’s problems. Morrissey is not shy about roaming out the field to get on ball and create openings for his team, while Ciaran Brennan’s return to fitness adds an extra goal threat for this Bridge side. While perhaps more accustomed to operating at wing-back, Jason Cleere has notched some lovely scores for his team this season and hit three nice ones in their quarter-final win.
This game could be very tight, and impact from the bench might prove the difference. The Bridge’s Jack Campion certainly knows where the posts are, and his introduction could be significant. Those in attendance on Sunday should see a great game and for the neutral supporter, a clash to sit back and enjoy.
Shamrocks Ballyhale Vs James Stephens
Sunday, 3:15pm, UPMC Nowlan Park
Referee: Patrick O Reilly
Yes, you read the fixture correctly, it’s Shamrocks Ballyhale vs James Stephens in the second of Sunday’s double-header at UPMC Nowlan Park, not Dicksboro. That isn’t a dig at the Palmerstown outfit, but the way many were quick to write off the country’s best team was bordering on disrespectful. No one is saying that this Shamrocks team are unbeatable, but the way they performed against many people’s favourites for the Tom Walsh Cup should ensure that the doom merchants will now move on to backing the Village to dethrone the holders.
Now, back to the build-up.
The league campaign was by no means vintage Shamrocks, but then again, they have been known to start the season slowly. I don’t think Pat Hoban would have wanted to be involved in a relegation semi-final encounter, but his side did enough to ensure it would be Danesfort that had to continue to battle against the dreaded drop.
Their last eight encounter with Dicksboro at Sunday’s venue showed us the resolve that is still abound in the south Kilkenny club. One thing that was very evident was the physicality and controlled aggression that this Shamrocks team played with against Michael Walsh’s team. There’s no doubt that Hoban’s men went right to the line but I for one feel they needed to against a side that likes to play through the lines and are perhaps a little silkier in approach. Ok, Paddy Mullen saw red for his coming together with young Harry Shine, and to be fair, Paddy does have that in his locker, but the champions certainly brought the fire and put in several robust, spine-tingling challenges on their opponents.
The loss of Joey Holden, Brian Cody, Joey Cuddihy, Darren Mullen, and last season’s captain, Ronan Corcoran have certainly weakened this Shamrocks panel. Colin Fennelly has travelled back from the middle east for the last couple of games but looked to be struggling from the first whistle with a calf issue. Younger players have had to come into this hurling machine and fill very big gaps left by All-Ireland club winners.
Killian Corcoran, Dara Mason and Conor Welsh amongst others have come in and performed admirably in tough circumstances. Against the ‘Boro, Darragh Corcoran and Eoin Kenneally put in serious shifts against the men in maroon. Corcoran’s shift to the full-back position in the last couple of games has seen him grow in the ‘Joey’ role and allowed manager Hoban to have a slightly more experienced head gluing things together when flanked by youngsters Mason and Killian Corcoran. Shamrocks will hope that seasoned campaigner, Brian Butler is fit to start the last four clash on Sunday, as he can bring some know-how and guile to the last line of defence.
With Darragh Corcoran needed in the full-back line, Conor Welsh has filled in at wing back, showing much promise. Having the excellent Richie Reid inside him has helped, and together with Evan Shefflin, the Shamrocks still possess great drive from this pivotal line. Again, Richie Reid was in top form last day out, sweeping up and reading the play with ease as he helped quell the Dicksboro threat.
When the opposition team sees a half-forward line of Eoin Cody, TJ Reid and Adrian Mullen, it can only but strike fear into their defence. Captain Adrian Mullen was everywhere in the win over Dicksboro. He put in serious work rate and finished the game with 1-4, his goal, right on the stroke of half-time proving the major score of the game. TJ finished with 0-10 while Eoin Cody chipped in with 0-3 and this trio of county men will know that will need to replicate this if they are to continue their quest for a 6th consecutive Tom Walsh Cup.
James Stephens have been a little bit of everything this season. When they played the Shamrocks in the league earlier, they performed really well for lots of that game, but for another period, looked decidedly average. If Cian Kenny’s finger injury has healed well, you would think that he will add plenty to this Village side.
Brian Cody’s men have a strong spine, and in Niall Brassil and Luke Scanlon, they have two leaders who will die with their boots on. These two players contributed almost half their teams scores in the last eight win over Graigue Ballycallan. While Brassil’s goal before half time was a little fortunate, the No.6 is usually a threat to the scoreboard. Scanlon’s tally of 0-5 was instrumental in securing a semi-final berth for the city side.
While Eoin Guilfoyle was quieter than usual, he still contributed 3 points to his side’s winning total and the Shamrocks defence will need to be alert to curb his influence on the game. Stephen Manogue came off the bench to good effect last time out and hit two lovely scores which may put him in contention for a starting role on Sunday. Luke Scanlon’s midfield partner, William Spencer was also impressive in the quarter-final victory, notching 2 points from the engine room, and this is an area where Brian Cody will no doubt target to come out on top on Sunday.
Niall Brassil is likely to have Diarmuid Cody and Niall Delaney alongside him, or perhaps the returning Cian Kenny, although I think the county man is better creating a little further up the pitch. Keeper Gavin Costigan will need to be in top form and stand firm against some of the best forwards in the country. He will hope that the back 6 will offer him enough protection to keep the green flag raising to a minimum. If the Village are as open as they were at times against GBC, Shamrocks are more likely to punish these lapses.
The match-ups will be interesting. If Brian Cody and his backroom team can get things right in shackling Shamrocks County men, they will be well placed to build a platform for victory. You always feel that once the champions get into UPMC Nowlan Park that they tend to perform more often than not as they showed against the ‘Boro. The Village will perhaps be more suited to the level of physicality that Pat Hoban’s men will look to bring to the semi showdown and shouldn’t be found wanting in the heat of the battle.
The stage is set. Two potentially cracking semi-finals for Gaels to enjoy. Only two teams will be left standing and then we will know who our county finalists are for 2023. Enjoy the fare.