BY NIALL SHERRY
The battle for Tom Walsh reaches the last stand
St Canice’s Credit Union (Kilkenny) Senior Hurling Championship County Final
UPMC Nowlan Park, Sunday 2:30pm
James Stephens vs Shamrocks Ballyhale
Thoughts of five consecutive county titles will be put on hold for at least 60 minutes of battle; as holders Shamrocks Ballyhale take on the challenge of James Stephens at UPMC Nowlan Park this weekend.
Both sides will take to the pitch at Kilkenny headquarters knowing that victory leads a merry dance to a provincial title shot in Leinster. For Shamrocks, this a road well-travelled, and has led to greater success on the national stage on numerous occasions. There is still a lot of hurt and frustration at Páirc Na Seamróg about a certain Mr. Harry Ruddle and his late, late, late intervention in the club decider at Croke Park earlier this year.
For James Stephens, they will view this as an opportunity to get their hands on the Tom Walsh Cup after a hell of a gap. 2011 was the last time that The Village got over the line in the county showpiece. Ironically, it was Ballyhale that were conquered by Niall Rigney’s side following a replay. For a club like James Stephens, eleven years without a county title is a long sit.
Let’s start with the challengers – James Stephens.
Placed in Group B of the St. Canice’s Credit Union Senior Hurling League, Seamus Dwyer’s side endured a disappointing campaign, winning only once, against Graigue Ballycallan and then found themselves featuring in a relegation semi-final.
Once the inter-county season finished up and a rest was had by all involved, Brian Cody was integrated into The Village management team you could see an upturn in performance, if not results immediately. Defeats followed to city rivals O’Loughlin Gaels and Dicksboro, but you could sense the tide was beginning to turn. Better days lay ahead.
With some of their more prominent players returning to form and more importantly shaking off niggling injuries, James Stephens recorded a 7-point victory over Lisdowney in Ballyragget to secure their place at the top table and set up a quarter-final tie with Bennettsbridge. Wille Maher’s troops were coming off the back of a very poor league final defeat to Tullaroan and many pundits were struggling to call the winner of the encounter.
A Tadhg O’Dwyer goal and several vital scores from the deadly Niall Brassil saw The Village come out of the game 5-point winners and advance to a second consecutive county semi-final. Things were certainly looking up for Seamus Dwyer’s side as they began to prepare for a last four battle with those rivals from Palmerstown.
Dicksboro came into the semi having secured a 4-point win in the earlier league encounter, but knowing that The Village would bring more fire to this vital encounter. This game delivered much in terms of excitement and entertainment to those in attendance at UPMC Nowlan Park.
A goal from county man Conor Browne proved crucial as The Village overcame Michael Walsh’s side by 3-points to claim the first final berth. The real preparation could start now.
While James Stephens have had a couple of weeks to get themselves right, their opponents haven’t had that luxury. A delay to the playing of their last eight clash with Clara, has meant Shamrocks will have been out three weeks on the bounce, but this panel of players have been conditioned for such situations.
So, what of Shamrocks Ballyhale?
Well, they took the longer route to the decider, thanks to a final round defeat in the league to The Sash. Things didn’t start any better for Pat Hoban’s charges, as they surprisingly lost by the minimum to Clara in the opening round fixture.
A 13-point win followed over Mullinavat, and this was built on with victories over soon to be relegated Lisdowney and Erins Own. Then came the defeat to Tullaroan, but they would get the chance for revenge shortly.
A first-round championship clash with Glenmore was next up for Shamrocks. This much anticipated clash with last season’s intermediate champions proved to be a little easier than some expected. Eoin Cody was looking sharp and got an early goal, Adrian Mullen was firing over some classy scores as Ballyhale had an 11-point lead at the short whistle. As good teams do, Shamrocks managed the second half and without over-stretching themselves and came home 15-points clear at the final whistle.
Next-up for the 5-in-a-row chasing Shamrocks was a last eight battle with Clara. Pat Hobin’s men were not going to get caught twice in one season by the opposition and a masterful display by Ballyhale, spearheaded by the wonderful Adrian Mullen helped his side romp to a comfortable victory and in doing so, set-up another meeting with Tullaroan.
Despite putting in a great shift, there was to be no repeat of the league win for Ken Coogan’s men. As mentioned in last week’s preview, Mossy Keoghan has an eye for goal and he registered a wonderful solo effort to give The Sash faithful hope, after Shamrocks had raced into an early 4-point lead. The sides were level at the short whistle, as the Gaels in attendance wondered what would happen in the second half. A Colin Fennelly goal would set Ballyhale up for a tough finish to the semi-final and see them home by 4 as they progressed to the county final.
The final two….
If James Stephens are to cause an upset, and it would be an upset, they will need their main men to be firing on all cylinders at UPMC Nowlan Park. Niall Brassil has been instrumental in The Village’s scoring returns this season. His accuracy from the placed ball will be key to Seamus Dwyer’s men and Brassil will need to punish every opportunity that is afforded to him in the final.
Other key components for the city side will be the influence on the game of Eoin Guilfoyle and Tadhg O’Dwyer. Like Brassil, Guilfoyle troubles the score board on regular occasions. O’Dwyer comes alive in and around the square and Shamrocks will need to guard against this kind of threat.
There have been decent contributions from the likes of Andy Parsons and Luke Scanlon also this season and The Village will hope that these players deliver on the biggest of occasions. In midfield Conor Browne will relish the battle that Ronan Corcoran and his midfield partner in crime will bring. Since returning from inter-county duty, Cian Kenny has been operating in a deeper role, normally the centre-back position. The young star is an intelligent hurler and clearly the James Stephens management clearly think this change has a good effect on the team.
Shamrocks Ballyhale have been ticking along nicely this season. Manager Hoban wasn’t happy that they had to navigate a 1st round championship match, following their loss to Tullaroan in the league, but since then they have been building a decent head of steam.
The standout player for Shamrocks this season, for my money, has been Adrian Mullen. The former Kilkenny captain has been in inspirational form and has struck over many sumptuous scores during the club season to date. It’s quite difficult to define Mullen’s position, as he crops up all over the pitch and always gets through a mountain of work across every game. By his standards, he had a quieter than expected semi-final against the Sash, I wouldn’t expect two games like this on the bounce.
Mullen’s attacking county colleagues, Eoin Cody and TJ Reid will be hoping to deliver on the big stage again. These players thrive on the pressure and will be keen to see their clubs 50th Anniversary celebrations start in earnest with a 5th Tom Walsh Cup in a row. Like Niall Brassil, TJ Reid’s free-taking will be of huge importance to Shamrocks cause. Reid was in ominous form in the semi-final win over Tullaroan, hitting 0-11.
In defence, Richie Reid will look to sweep in front of his full-back line from the ‘6’ position while his half-back team mates Evan Shefflin and Darragh Corcoran will look to make the half-forwards of James Stephens track back while they augment the Shamrocks attack.
If it comes down to the benches, Shamrocks would appear to hold the stronger men in reserve. Joe Cuddihy was sprung from the bench last time out and notched two important points against The Sash.
There are enough plots and sub-plots for this final to really deliver. One hopes that it is a spectacle worthy of the Tom Walsh Cup decider.
This year’s Michael Lyng Motors Hyundai Intermediate Hurling Championship County Final will see Danesfort take on Thomastown at UPMC Nowlan Park on Sunday 23rd October. Danesfort gave themselves a chance of returning to the top table at the first attempt following a 6-point win over Rower Inistioge last weekend.
Thomastown will try to prevent Danesfort’s return to the senior ranks having seen off the challenge of Carrickshock by four points in the second semi-final. Noel Doherty’s side will know that a stiff task awaits them when they face-off against Niall Bergin’s highly fancied side.
>> SHERRY SAYS…
So, Brian Cody is scheming to derail Shamrocks Ballyhale’s 5-in-a-row bid. No doubt Seamus Dwyer had exactly this in mind when he asked the recently departed Kilkenny manager to lend a hand in The Village set up.
You can clearly see that things have improved, is this part of a ‘Cody bounce’? Their semi-final win over city rivals Dicksboro will have put a spring in their step ahead of the decider with Shamrocks, but facing the holders in the decider will be a step-up for James Stephens.
They may well look to history and their last lifting of the Tom Walsh Cup in 2011, earned with a replay win over this weekend’s opponents. Cian Kenny and co. will need everything to go their way and will perhaps a little bit of luck as well, but in a 2-horse race you never know.
Like we said earlier… There’s definitely a sense of unfinished business for Ballyhale. Yes, they want to secure a coveted fifth consecutive county title, but that is merely the gateway to provincial gains and then a possible rematch with those down the road in Ballygunner. But Croker can wait for now.
The business in hand for Pat Hoban’s side will take place at UPMC Nowlan Park and they will be as driven as ever to hold onto Tom Walsh.