THEY could finally relax in Newtownshandrum and Ballyhale yesterday, their respective provincial titles won, hurling season over for 2009.
Ballyhale Shamrocks completed a fantastic four-in-a-row in Kilkenny, while Newtownshandrum have also enjoyed unprecedented success for their own little parish, four Cork senior titles this decade.
In their four years as Kilkenny champions Ballyhale have gone on to win Leinster three times, Tullamore their latest victims last Sunday. That achievement was matched by Newtownshandrum, who survived a late scare to see off Ballygunner in Thurles to win their third Munster.
Yesterday, then, was a day for winding down, a day when those who have spent so many gruelling hours this year in training, so many testing hours in matches, could meet in a more social setting and just kick back. Phillip Noonan, magnificent at wing-back against Ballygunner, was with the Newtown lads, first in Goughs in Charleville, then in Herlihys back in the village, the only pub in Newtownshandrum.
TJ Reid, meanwhile, was with his mates in Ballyhale. “You have to celebrate something like this,” he said. “You must enjoy the good times, and that goes for the whole parish – another cup back in Ballyhale.”
In Newtown, it wasn’t so much a session as a séisiún, fantastic sing-song ably led by full-back Gerdy O’Mahony, giving lie to the foul rumour that there isn’t an O’Mahony with a voice in the parish. For sheer entertainment, however, it was hard to beat the individual offerings of Cathal Naughton and young Jamie Coughlan.
Underneath all the celebrations, however, there is still awareness. While this is the end of the year for both teams, it’s not the end of the road. Next February, they meet in the All-Ireland semi-final – a major challenge, for both. They haven’t met before, but the respect is great, and mutual.
Said Phillip Noonan: “Portumna are THE team at the moment but for us now it’s Ballyhale, a serious challenge. Henry Shefflin, Cha, the Fennellys, the Reids, four-in-a-row champions, three Kilkenny All-Ireland-winning captains – that’s fair form, and fair play to them. The Reids (brothers Patrick, Eoin and TJ) are serious players, all of them; you see TJ there, only coming on for Kilkenny as a sub, but every time he plays he makes an impression.
“They all have pace, they’ll take minding, but it’s not down to just marking TJ, or Henry, you have to watch all 15 of them. We have our sights set on them now.”
TJ Reid was equally complimentary: “Newtownshandrum are a great team. I didn’t see Sunday’s game, but I saw the match against Thurles Sars. A very good win, fast team, a lot of pace all over the field – I know that if we leave Ben and Jerry and Cathal Naughton running loose around the place, they’ll do serious damage. They’re probably something like Portumna, very fit and fast, we’re going to have to really knuckle down for this one.
“It’s the first time we’ve met a Cork team, a different style to what we’re used to meeting – it’s the ould running game, short-passing, but sure we’ll have a look at it, hopefully come up with some sort of a plan to stop it.”
A real contrast in styles, says Phillip: “I’d say all the Kilkenny teams play with the same style, the Kilkenny style, very direct, while we have our own game-plan, we have our own style, and we’ll stick to that. It will be a clash of styles, Cork/Kilkenny, which will mean added interest for a lot of people, I’m sure.”
Waiting on the winners, and a team mentioned by both Phillip and TJ – Portumna, champions, three-time winners in the last four years, going for a fantastic and unprecedented three-in-a-row. Last year they really turned over Ballyhale Shamrocks in the semi-final, a 5-11 to 1-16 trimming, while in March 2006 they denied Newtownshandrum in the final, which gives both clubs that little extra incentive in this one.
TJ: “The standard has been really high for the last few years, Portumna the kingpins. We’re hearing about their training, it’s supposed to be up to inter-county level, but that’s where they are now, and that’s the new standard. Portumna are the benchmark, an amazing team, outstanding players all over the field – Ollie Canning, the Hayes, Joe Canning, so many others. A serious team, but any team can be beaten.”
Agreed, says Phillip, and points to recent precedent: “In 2004, when we won the All-Ireland, we beat Dunloy in the final, and they had beaten Portumna in the semi-final, so you never know what will happen.”
Still, though, that was Portumna’s first Galway senior title, and they were very green going into that semi-final; this year they again meet Dunloy, but will hardly be caught again. Which raises the point – is it fair that Portumna can reach an All-Ireland final by winning just one game outside their own county, while Newtown or Ballyhale, whichever of them comes through, will have had four tough knockout games?
“I suppose there should be some balance,” says Phillip. “But that’s up to the powers-that-be, we don’t have any choice in it. “I suppose it is unfair,” agrees TJ, “We had a few really tough games in Leinster – Oulart-The-Ballagh nearly beat us in our first game. It’s going to be tough again against Newtownshandrum, but we have a good break now, and we’re all at the same stage – All-Ireland semi-final.
“This is where you want to be, back representing the county, winning Leinster. We’ve come back from the hurt of last year, losing so heavily to Portumna, we’ll be trying to make up for that disappointment the next day – that’s our focus now.”
In the meantime, in both parishes, time for a bit of well-deserved R&R.
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