Provincial campaign starts in Carlow
BY NIALL SHERRY, SPORTS EDITOR
SHERRY SAYS Quarter Final Preview
AIB Leinster Club Senior Hurling Championship 2023
Mount Leinster Rangers vs O’Loughlin Gaels
Sunday, 4:30pm, Netwatch Cullen Park
Having dethroned All-Ireland champions Shamrocks Ballyhale in the Kilkenny County final a fortnight ago, O’Loughlin Gaels take to the provincial stage as they begin what they hope will be a fruitful Leinster campaign. First up for the St John’s Park side is a trip to Netwatch Cullen Park to take on the mighty Mount Leinster Rangers (MLR) on Sunday (Throw-in 3:30pm).
It is as tough a start as Brian Hogan’s men could have been given as they embark on their first Leinster adventure since 2016. That year, the Loughs lost out in the decider to Dublin champions Cuala, who went onto be crowned All-Ireland champions, beating Clare’s Ballyea in the St Patrick’s Day final. Ironically, each of O’Loughlin’s four forays after claiming Kilkenny glory have ended in defeat to the eventual national champions. On the two occasions that the city side have claimed the O’Neill Cup in 2003 & 2010, they lost out to Newtownshandrum and Clarinbridge.
Back on Noreside, many Gaels fancied a change of champion this year, with Dicksboro, Bennettsbridge and eventual winners, O’Loughlin’s all expected to pose a real challenge to the Illustrious Shamrocks Ballyhale. Despite being numerous bodies down from last season’s All-Ireland winning run, Pat Hoban’s side defied many to reach the county final and put in a gutsy display, going down by the bare minimum, thanks to a wonder-strike from Paddy Deegan. Hogan’s charges showed little fear as they claimed Tom Walsh Cup number five at UPMC Nowlan Park and there appears to be real belief and hunger that they can enjoy a long winter of hurling, beginning this weekend.
Sunday’s opponents are frequent visitors to the provincial arena but have only got over the line once to claim the O’Neill Cup and that was in 2013 when they beat heavy favourites Oulart-The Ballagh by 3 points. Managed by Kilkenny native Tom Mullally, the Carlow side were eventually beaten by eight points in the All-Ireland club final by a Joe Canning inspired Portumna team. Having wrestled the Willie O’Connor Cup back from rivals St Mullins, Paul O’Brien will be keen to see his team progress on the provincial front. Their county title victory over the reigning champions was a lot more straight forward than many expected, and in truth the result was never in doubt from the short whistle, when MLR had built an impressive 8-point lead over Maurice Aylward’s men and finished the game leading by the same margin.
Backboned by many county players, MLR had a MOTM performance from Chris Nolan who finished his days work with an eye-catching personal tally of 1-9, 1-5 of which came from open play. Indeed, Nolan finished the Carlow campaign as the second highest scorer with a total of 5-36 from his six matches played. In another nod to the talented hurler, Nolan registered the highest total in a single game in this season’s JJ Kavanagh & Sons sponsored championship when hitting 2-9 in his sides round two group game win over Eddie Scally’s Bagenalstown Gaels. The Carlow champions attack is not only about Chris Nolan, but he does also have plenty of support from the likes of Ciaran Kavanagh, Dean Tobin and young Donagh Murphy. Murphy is a rising star on the hurling circuit and has had great ‘schooling’ as a student at St Kieran’s College in Kilkenny. Murphy actually bagged a major in his school’s Croke Cup win over Presentation College Athenry last March. Corner-forwards Murphy and Kavanagh shared six points in their final win over St Mullins.
One of the biggest talking points that came out of MLR county final win, was the return of veteran netminder Frank Foley to the Borris sides line-up during this campaign. The 46-year-old who now holds nine senior championship medals clearly brings a wealth of experience to the Carlow side and hasn’t let anyone down since he came back between the sticks following an injury to first-choice keeper Dean Grennan. Should Grennan recover from injury, it will be interesting to see which keeper gets the nod for Sunday’s provincial quarter final.
Another impressive performer for MLR has been midfielder Fiachra Fitzpatrick. The big number eight loves to get forward and weighed in with a major in the final against St Mullins. Like many of his teammates, Fitzpatrick is a dual star, and these players give everything in both codes for their beloved club. In defence is where you will find team captain Diarmuid Byrne. The full-back is a good leader and will ensure that those around him give their all against O’Loughlin Gaels.
Brian Hogan’s outfit will have thoroughly enjoyed their county title celebrations but will have knuckled down over the last 10 days to ensure that both mind and body is ready for the MLR challenge. The Loughs management team will have studied all available footage of Sunday’s opponents and have drawn up a game plan that they hope will lead to claiming a semi-final berth. Their county contingent certainly stepped up and delivered when it mattered most against the Shamrocks. Alongside match winner Paddy Deegan, Huw Lawlor, Mikey Butler and Conor Heary all put in serious shifts at UPMC Nowlan Park.
Arguably one of hurling’s finest full backs, Huw Lawlor was tasked with keeping tabs on Eoin Cody, while 2022 Young Hurler of the Year, Mikey Butler shackled Adrian Mullen all over the park, stifling the talented stickman’s influence on proceedings. Many credit O’Loughlin’s win to Butler winning this particular battle. Deegan shadowed TJ Reid in the final and you can bet that the legendary Shamrocks man knew all about it.
Goalkeeper Stephen Murphy will be hoping for a quiet day at the office on Sunday and will marshal those in front of him to ensure the Loughs rearguard doesn’t switch off. Should he be given the opportunity, the experienced netminder is more than capable of getting on the scoresheet from long range. As mentioned throughout the Kilkenny club season, wing backs Jordan Molloy and David Fogarty have been exceptional for the St John’s Park side. Both players appear to have an excellent balance of defensive responsibility coupled with the game intelligence to drive forward and keep the scoreboard ticking over. These two players are clearly benefiting from having the towering presence of Paddy Deegan beside them.
In the engine room, Cian Loy and Jack Nolan will form a more than formidable midfield partnership and look to win this crucial pitch battle and provide plenty of ball for a forward line that Captain Mark Bergin aside, were a little quiet on the scoring front in their win over Shamrocks. The lively and dangerous Owen Wall was well marked and struggled to have the impact that he would have hoped for last time out. That may spell danger for the MLR defence on Sunday and I can see Wall playing a major part in the clash at Netwatch Cullen Park.
Like Wall, Eoin O’Shea was on the periphery of things in the county final. Again, O’Loughlin’s will need much more from the centre-forward, and O’Shea himself will be acutely aware that the likes of Conor Kelly and Luke Hogan are pushing hard for inclusion and have made telling contributions to their side’s successful season so far. The biggest example of their impact came against Ballyhale when both were sprung from the bench and struck vital scores to reign in the South Kilkenny side’s lead.
Mark Bergin was in inspirational form as he led his side to a fifth Tom Walsh Cup hitting 0-10 and being heavily involved all over the UPMC Nowlan Park pitch. Manager Hogan will know that he can count on his captain to deliver for him and the team, no matter the venue or the opponent.
As usual, winter hurling is extremely taxing on the body, but O’Loughlin’s look very well conditioned as Sunday looms and that will have been well planned by Mickey Comerford. I for one was amazed by the fitness of this side as the county final was in the melting pot, and to be honest, extra time wouldn’t have been a problem for this side.
If mind and bodies are right, I feel O’Loughlin’s have enough quality and strength in depth to get the better of the Carlow champions on Sunday. Get the result and Hogan’s heroes can start thinking about a provincial semi-final against the winners of Naomh Eanna (Wexford) and Kilcormac Killoughey (Offaly). For now, one step at a time.