MOST people may be counting down the days to Christmas, but Cha Fitzpatrick and Ballyhale Shamrocks are already looking beyond the festive period to the New Year and a shot at redemption.
Ten months have passed since Joe Canning and Portumna defeated the Kilkenny champions 5-11 to 1-16 in an amazing AIB All-Ireland Club semi-final in Thurles.
Only a late rally, sparked by Henry Shefflin, prevented Ballyhale from exiting the championship on the back of a double-digit defeat. And the memory is a bitter one for Fitzpatrick and company.
Now Ballyhale are back in another All-Ireland semi-final, where Newtownshandrum await in February, while Portumna will be up against Antrim’s Dunloy.
“Obviously we were disappointed after being beaten by Portumna last year but we are looking forward to a break now and then focusing on our next game, against Newtown.
“We have a lot of improving to do. It’s a tough challenge ahead. We’re trying to improve all the time. We made a few changes and a few switches that seem to have worked so far. We know Newtown are an excellent team, we’re not looking any further than that. We’ll have to knuckle down after Christmas and up our game big-time.”
It’s an impressive line-up in the final four and Ballyhale will feel well prepared for the challenge having claimed three of the last four Leinster titles.
Unbackable going into the Leinster decider two days ago, Ballyhale dealt comfortably with Tullamore’s challenge but improvement will be required against the men from Newtownshandrum. One area is the attack which registered 15 wides on what was, admittedly, a blustery day.
Fitzpatrick counters: “Conditions weren’t great. The ground was very heavy. There was a strong breeze so that is understandable. It is nice to have a break now and then focus on bigger games ahead.
“We have achieved four-in-a -row in Kilkenny so that is a huge achievement,” he added.
“The Kilkenny club competition is very competitive so to get out of that is an achievement in itself. We are just delighted to still be involved coming up to Christmas.”
This latest trophy marks an uplifting end to what has been a difficult year for Fitzpatrick, in which he contracted mumps, broke a bone in his hand and was laid low with a bout of tonsillitis. The impact on his game were all too obvious. A series of niggling injuries and the broken bone curtailed his season further.
Having been a starter and All Star in each of the previous three seasons, Fitzpatrick watched this year’s All-Ireland final from the bench as Kilkenny claimed the four-in-a-row.
“It is a great way to finish. To do four-in-a-row at club level is just brilliant. Still, celebrations were a bit subdued. We know where we want to be. We want to be in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day and it is Newtownshandrum who are standing in our way.”
On Sunday, Cha held the midfield for Shamrocks along with county colleague Michael Fennelly who also contracted mumps earlier this year but the signs are that both are well on their way to recovery.
“During the year I struggled with form,” said Fitzpatrick. “Then I broke my hand as well. You are trying to get back to form the whole time. It is a slow process but I’m getting there and happy to be hurling a bit better now.”
Hurling through the winter won’t hurt, although Fitzpatrick doesn’t seem to think it will be a huge help either.
“I’m not sure. Everyone would rather if the ground was a bit better, faster ball and I suppose a wider pitch would probably suit us better so I suppose those things will take care of themselves in the spring.”
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