Presentation College Athenry are back in the Croke Cup final, back to try and topple the undisputed kings of colleges hurling.
Tomorrow's All-Ireland post-primary SHC decider is a repeat of the 2018 final, a game which produced eight goals and as many twists and turns as you’d find on the Cú Chulainn rollercoaster at Tayto Park, but a game which also produced a familiar ending — St Kieran’s crowned champions for the sixth time this decade.
That was the Athenry school’s second-ever Croke Cup final appearance — their first arriving back in 1976 — and the first time since 2004 that a Galway side had reached the concluding afternoon of the post-primary hurling championship.
There has been no Galway winner of this competition since 1995, but Athenry did make a small piece of history in their semi-final win over Midleton by becoming the first side from the county to reach back-to-back Croke Cup finals.
From the team put out against Midleton, seven — goalkeeper Paddy Rabbitte, Jason Reilly, Shane Quirke, TJ Brennan, Mark Kennedy, Adam Clarke and Adam Brett — started last year’s extra-time reverse to today’s opponents, with Rabbitte, Quirke, Brett, Oisin Salmon, and Ian McGlynn part of the Galway side which overcame Kilkenny in last August’s All-Ireland minor final.
McGlynn was captain of the Presentation Athenry team which thumped Thurles CBS in the All-Ireland junior decider at the beginning of December. Gavin Lee and Christy Brennan are two further members of that junior team who are chasing double All-Ireland success, so while the 2019 class might be backboned by survivors from last year’s side, a decent crop of fresh talent has also been blended into the mix.
“It has to be a help that we were there last year, but how much of a help you won’t know until Saturday,” said Athenry manager Mike Finn.
It was our school’s first time being in an All-Ireland final in a long, long time. You’d have to learn a few bits and pieces from the day, and the lead up to the game itself. We’d hope to put all that into play for Saturday. Certainly, these lads will be hungry to win. These games are decided by fine margins so every little thing counts.
Athenry found themselves 12 points down early in the second-half of the 2018 All-Ireland but staged a fine comeback to force extra-time.
The 5-19 to 3-16 scoreline gives you a fair indication of what patrons were treated to.
“It was a mental game,” Finn continues.
“Even the game after it, the Limerick-Tipperary league semi also went to extra-time. Whatever you paid in that day, you certainly got value for money. It was a mental game, but that is schools hurling. Schools hurling is all about momentum. When you get on top, you have to make it count on the scoreboard. When Kieran’s got on top, they made it count with goals. When we got on top for the last 15 minutes, we got the scores to get back level.
On Saturday, both sides will have a team full of top quality hurlers. You can’t take your eye off any of them. Every one of them will punish you if they get the opportunity.
“St Kieran’s are the team you want to measure yourself against. Final or no final, they are a team you want to play every year because if you can compete against them, you know you have a decent side. If you can beat them, you know you have an excellent side. Other teams have come and gone in recent years, but they are consistently there year-on-year.
"It is the challenge in front of us and we’re looking forward to it as it’ll give us a great measure of where our lads are at.
“We did our best last year, but it was not good enough and we know we have to lift the bar higher this time around.
Having claimed six Connacht senior titles since 2010, along with success in the junior grade, Athenry have established themselves as the dominant force within the county. Edging past Harty Cup champions Midleton CBS earlier this month was another “feather in their cap”. All that remains is that elusive Croke Cup. To get their hands on it will require becoming just the third school in the past 17 years to better St Kieran’s in an All-Ireland final.
No easy feat.