Tomorrow: All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final: Newtownshandrum (Cork) v Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny), Thurles, 2.30pm.
If you’re any kind of hurling supporter, this is the game you’ve been waiting for since well before Christmas.
Over the last four years, Ballyhale Shamrocks have been the best team in Kilkenny, four-in-a-row county title winners mirroring the achievement of the county team at All-Ireland level.
In that time they also won one All-Ireland title (2007) and three Leinsters, and with the likes of Henry and Paul Shefflin, Cha Fitzpatrick, Michael and Colin Fennelly, TJ, Eoin and Paddy Reid, Aidan Cummins, in their ranks, are a considerable force.
Then you go to Newtownshandrum. Since 2000, they won four Cork titles, three Munsters, one All-Ireland (2004), matching the Shamrocks step for step.
In their line-up they have twins Ben and Jerry O’Connor and another brother, John; they have Pat Mulcahy and his brother Brendan forming the spine of the defence; they have the flying Cathal Naughton and PJ Copse in midfield, along with the likes of James Bowles, John Paul King, team captain Dermot Gleeson, long-serving Phillip Noonan and a host of speedy youngsters – Jerry O’Mahony, James Coughlan, Michael Bowles, Ryan Clifford, PJ Copse, Sean Riordan.
On both sides you have a hurler-of-the-year, you have multiple All Star winners, you have former county captains galore.
What makes this clash most intriguing, however, is where they clash – the style. Ballyhale are typical Kilkenny – physically powerful, skilled but direct, and more than able to go for the jugular when an opening presents itself.
Newtownshandrum, by contrast, pioneered the possession game in hurling. They pass, they run, they support, they run, they pass, they support, always patient in possession, always working the opening, not shooting until the score is on.
Oddly enough, even through all those periods of success, this is the first time the two sides get to meet head-on. And head-on it will be. Newtown will take on what is perceived to be a slow Ballyhale rearguard, Ballyhale will try to overpower what they see as a weaker Newtown 15, impose their game.
As much as anything else, then, a battle of wills. So, who will win? The odds say Ballyhale, but this corner believes if Newtownshandrum are as ready as they were for the Cork county final, they have it in them to take it.
Portumna v Dunloy, Parnell Park, Dublin, 2.30pm.
You could take the lazy view here and say – well, it’s the reigning three-time, two-in-a-row All-Ireland champions against an Ulster team that has failed in four All-Ireland finals – only one result.
Or you could take the logical view, and say, well, it’s the reigning three-time two-in-a-row All-Ireland champions.
Portumna to win, and win well.
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