BY NIALL SHERRY
ALL PIX DANNY LAHART
Connacht champs next up for Ballyhale
AIB ALL-IRELAND CLUB SHC SEMI-FINAL
Shamrocks Ballyhale v
St Thomas’ (Galway)
Sunday, January 23rd, Semple Stadium, 3.30pm (Live on TG4)
St Patrick’s Day 2019. This same pairing took to the Croke Park turf in the decider, to see which team would be crowned All-Ireland senior club hurling champions.
Colin Fennelly helped himself to 2-4 from play as Henry Shefflin’s charges romped to a 17-point victory over the Connaught champions.
On Sunday, under the guidance of Waterford native, James O’Connor, Shamrocks Ballyhale go in search of a third consecutive final appearance, standing in their way, Galway’s finest, St Thomas’.
With their most complete performance of the season to date, Shamrocks earned their semi-final berth with a comprehensive victory over Laois champions Clough/Ballacolla. Sunday’s opponents will no doubt have been analyzing this game in preparation for the battle ahead.
Should Ballyhale hit the same level as last time out, I would find it difficult to make a case for any opponent, but Galway hurling is a step or two above that of Laois.
Sunday’s opponents, St Thomas’s, last tasted All-Ireland glory back in 2013, when they defeated Offaly side, Kilcormac-Killoughey by 2-point in their first ever national decider.
Like Shamrocks, St Thomas’ have claimed four consecutive county titles, their latest coming in early December; with a 3-point victory over Clarinbridge at Pearse Stadium. The win meant it continued the side’s remarkable record of never having lost a county final. It was also St Thomas’ sixth title in 10 years, cementing their dominance within Galway hurling.
Kenneth Burke’s side know what it takes to get over the line, and no doubt the astute bainisteoir will have been busy hatching a plan to tackle the threat of the 3-in-a-row seeking All-Ireland club champions.
The Connaught champions look to have been dealt a huge blow, with the loss of influential defender, Shane Cooney, who has reportedly undergone surgery having sustained a serious leg injury during a recent challenge game against NUI Galway.
Many had predicted that Cooney would be handed the job of marking TJ Reid, so it looks likely that bainisteoir Burke will have to shuffle his pack slightly to accommodate the inter-county stars absence. Much of the burden will fall on Shane’s brother and team captain, Conor, who registered 11 points in their county final win, five of those scores coming from play. The placed-ball specialist has also captained his side to all of their 4-in-a-row county titles.
Galway’s All-Ireland winning captain from their 2017 success, David Burke has been in excellent form, dominating all-comers in the engine room of midfield.
Supporting captain Cooney in attack will be club veterans, James Regan and Darragh Burke, along with the ever-improving Oisin Flannery. Each of the aforementioned players hit a brace of points in the victory over Clarinbridge last time out.
It will be interesting to see if Richie Reid picks up the oppositions captain on Sunday, or whether James O’Connor will select another of his defensive stars to shackle the undoubted threat of Conor Cooney.
One of the key features of St Thomas’ county final win, was the number of times they ‘turned-over’ the opposition. Like Ballyhale, they tend to hunt in packs, not giving their opponents time to settle on the ball. As we have seen with all successful teams, at both club and county level, turnovers are a crucial part of today’s game and punishing the opposition when you do so is vital.
Since securing their third provincial title on the bounce in mid-December, one would imagine the much-needed break over the festive period will have helped the aching limbs of the Shamrocks players. Following the victory over Clough/Ballacolla, bainisteoir James O’Connor revealed that the break was coming at the right time for his side, have had a few players carrying injuries into the Leinster decider.
TJ Reid has been carrying a groin injury since the county final win over O’Loughlin’s, while both Evan Shefflin and captain Colin Fennelly played through the pain barrier last time out. Christmas would have been more rehab and unwind, than mistletoe and wine for the Shamrocks panel! The gap between games should certainly have helped re-focus the mind and revive the body.
There will be big jobs on Sunday for Joey Holden, Evan Shefflin and the rest of the defensive unit. They have shown so far that they can mix it with any opposition, and if things go according to plan for Shamrocks, the likes of Shefflin, Darragh Corcoran and Richie Reid will hope to make the opposition forwards work equally as hard going in the other direction.
The midfield battle as usual will be key in gaining the upper hand. David Burke vs Ronan Corcoran should be an interesting tussle. Also, Brian Cody’s ability to weigh in with a couple of scores could be helpful in keeping the score board ticking over.
The distribution of scores has been one of the most pleasing aspects in Ballyhale’s quest for further glory. Obviously, TJ Reid will be on placed ball duty and that will enable the most to be made of any opposition indiscretions from half-way at the very least. When TJ was withdrawn in the Leinster final, Eoin Cody stepped up and showed that he too can be relied on for scores from frees.
Adrian Mullen has been improving nicely as championship hurling progresses. The hard-working forward isn’t afraid to mix it when the going gets tough, and is a vital cog in this Shamrocks machine. How Mullen dovetails with TJ, Eoin Cody and Colin Fennelly will again be crucial in the Marble City side’s bid to reach another decider.
One man who will be back in contention, is Joe Cuddihy. The fast-improving attacking star missed the provincial decider due to suspension, following his harsh red card against St Rynaghs. James O’Connor could be tempted to unleash Cuddihy from the start, knowing that he has options on the bench to freshen things up if needed. Eoin Kenneally had a decent game against Clough/Ballacolla and was industrious throughout.
As mentioned, the bench could again prove decisive, and Ballyhale, I believe hold the upper hand in this area. Eoin Reid, Brian Butler, Liam Barron etc… good aces to have in your pack.
Young Hurler of the Year, two years running, Eoin Cody is one player that I am really looking forward to watching again. The nippy forward star is getting better with every outing. Pace, movement, skill, judgement – Eoin has all the attributes to keep his Ballyhale side top of the tree for a long time to come.
For now, St Thomas’ pose the immediate threat to the Shamrocks All-Ireland crown. Muster’s Ballygunner or Ulster’s Slaughtneil will face the winners of Sunday’s match. That’s a matter for another day.
>> SHERRY SAYS………..
Semi-finals are for winning. They don’t need to be pretty. They don’t need to be exciting. The only important thing is the result.
We have been treated to decent hurling on the journey so far, also a wee bit of excitement with the extra-time victory over St Rynaghs.
I’d imagine James O’Connor and co. would settle for a routine victory on Sunday, no scares, no injuries, just an uneventful win.
The loss of Shane Cooney to the Galway side is massive. His role at No.6 has been key to the sustained success of this St Thomas’ side. His brother and captain, Conor will rally his team ahead of Sunday and ensure that they leave all on the Semple Stadium pitch.
Hopefully the Christmas break has helped clear up some of the niggles in the Ballyhale camp.
The quest for a third consecutive Tommy Moore Cup is a now at the penultimate stage.
I see the Shamrocks attack causing problems for the St Thomas’ defence. TJ, Adrian, Eoin, Colin etc…. Let the firepower rain down on the opposition. Let’s make another All-Ireland final. Croker awaits.