BY NIALL SHERRY
Season finale could bring just rewards
AIB ALL-IRELAND SENIOR CLUB HURLING FINAL
CROKE PARK, SUNDAY JANUARY 22nd
Shamrocks Ballyhale vs Dunloy Cuchullains
>> Sherry Says Final Preview….
All roads lead to Croke Park on Sunday when the pride of Kilkenny, Shamrocks Ballyhale go in search of a 9th All-Ireland club title. Sunday’s opponents are Antrim and Ulster champions Dunloy Cuchullains who surprised many by claiming the scalp of Galway kingpins St Thomas’s in Decembers semi-final.
Shamrocks avenged last season’s decider defeat to Ballygunner with a 3-point win over the Waterford side, but as Pat Hoban said afterwards, no silverware has been won yet, and the shrewd Mullinavat man will be acutely aware that Dunloy possess an unknown quantity that could be a dangerous component in the Capital this weekend.
Sunday will be the fourth All-Ireland club final on the bounce for the South Kilkenny side, and they will be determined to finish the club’s 50th anniversary celebrations in style by claiming the Tommy Moore Cup. Don’t be fooled though, the Antrim champions are not travelling to Dublin just to make up the numbers.
The four-time beaten finalists have been hurling in the shadows of others in Ulster since 2009 and having had ten provincial titles in bag then, had to wait until 2022 to claim number eleven, when they ousted the recent dominant force in Ulster hurling, Derry’s Slaughtneil.
Under the guidance of former player Gregory O’Kane, this Dunloy side has shown a thirst for success and will be determined to thrive as the underdogs when they enter the Croker arena on Sunday. As a player, O’Kane played in Dunloy’s four previous All-Ireland deciders and knows how much it would mean to his Parish to see the Cuchullains crowned champions of Ireland.
Following their 4-point win over the Galway side, O’Kane spoke to the assembled media:
“Croke Park is a special place,” said O’Kane. “A club like Dunloy, our ambition is always to be here and to play a game of this magnitude. That’s always been our goal, to get out of Ulster and to represent ourselves and our club on the best stage in the world, and bring our hurling here. It’s a good day for the team and we are delighted to get over the line.”
Dunloy lifted the Antrim title for the 5th time in six years with victory over rivals Cushendall in October before entering the provincial arena. O’Kane’s men knew that they needed to rival the Derry side’s intensity and they did that in their hard-fought 2-point win at Armagh’s Athletic grounds.
That day their top marksman was full-forward Conal Cunning who notched 0-7. The bustling No.14 could prove a real handful for Joey Holden and this could be one of the games key battles. Nigel Elliott finished the Ulster final with 1-1 and is another of their lively forward line. At the back, Ryan McGarry and Kevin Molloy provided a strong spine and will know that Colin Fennelly and TJ Reid are on a different level to anyone they have faced this season.
The All-Ireland semi-final encounter with St Thomas’s at Croke Park saw Cunning repeat his provincial feat and finish with 0-7, but it would be an amazing goal from the talented Keelan Molloy that set the Antrim men on their way to Sunday’s decider. Molloy has that in his locker, and the Shamrocks players will need to ensure that he doesn’t get the chance to build up a head of steam at the same venue this weekend. Richie Reid and his half-back buddies Evan Shefflin and Darragh Corcoran will have been briefed on the hard-running style of the Dunloy attacking unit.
Last time out Dunloy registered 15 wides, they will need to lower that tally if they are to continue their trail of upsets. They had totals of 17 and 18 in the wins over St Thomas’s and Slaughtneil respectively, but as Pat Hoban’s men have shown, they can run-up bigger totals when on-form.
Both goalkeepers have been in great from this season. Dean Mason has demonstrated his ability with some fine saves, particularly against Naas, Crokes and Ballygunner, while his Dunloy counterpart, Ryan Elliott has been instrumental in helping his side claim the big scalps to date. Ryan comes from fine stock; his father Shane was the netminder for a couple of the clubs previous All-Ireland club finals in the mid 90’s.
How Dunloy cope with what I believe is the greater skill level and conditioning of their Noreside opponents will be key. This season we have witnessed the re-emergence of Adrian Mullen. Not that he’d gone away or anything, but the former Kilkenny captain is clearly in the shape of his life, following that horrendous cruciate injury in 2020. Mullen pops up everywhere on the pitch, and his ability to win ‘dirty ball’ and turnovers is crucial to Pat Hoban’s team. In some ways he sacrifices other parts of his game for the greater good of the team.
With a bit of luck Adrian will have brothers Paddy and Darren for company on the Croker pitch. Darren left the pitch in the opening minutes against Ballygunner, but the injury-plagued defender should be available this weekend. In midfield, Paddy’s physicality will test the Dunloy engine room, but hurlers from the north are seldom found wanting in physical exchanges.
Eoin Cody, superb in the semi-final win over the Munster champions will relish another opportunity in the wide-open spaces of the Jones’s Road venue. He could do a lot of damage.
TJ will keep the scoreboard ticking over and Gregory O’Kane’s team will need to ensure that they don’t cough-up too many placed ball opportunities with the free-taking maestro around.
If Joe Cuddihy hasn’t recovered to take his place, we might well see the talented and nippy Niall Shortall from the start. Shortall provides a different dynamic and option to the Shamrocks attack.
Hopefully Limerick whistler Johnny Murphy will allow Sunday’s game to flow, and we will be treated to an excellent game of hurling.
Not to be arrogant or dismissive of the Dunloy challenge, but if both teams play to their potential, Shamrocks Ballyhale should emerge comfortable winners, but last February has shown that you don’t always get what you deserve.
Ádh Mór Shamrocks Ballyhale.