Familiarity breeds respect
There is pedigree on both sides of the argument in today's Kilkenny showdown, writes Dermot Crowe
YOU don't expect a club website to be anything other than partisan and James Stephens' doesn't disappoint. In a section of clips from their 2009 county final meeting with Ballyhale Shamrocks, they ask viewers to make their own judgement on a number of refereeing decisions that went against them. It is clear from the case being presented that the Village feel hard done by.
In one, Jackie Tyrrell's helmet is dislodged by Henry Shefflin and when the play runs on it is the Ballyhale man who gets the free. Tyrrell is perplexed. A free to Shefflin is as good as a score.
Today they have the opportunity to address the perceived miscarriage of justice in more practical terms when the two clubs that have dominated the local hurling championship since the middle of the last decade meet head on in the county final. It will be their third meeting in the final in four seasons and Ballyhale have had the upper hand in each of the previous two. But while the Shamrocks have a fearsome reputation and some of the best hurlers in Ireland, there is an innate grain through the Village tradition that considers no challenge beyond them.
Unlike Cork and Tipperary, who provided tremendous novelty with their county final winners in recent weeks, the last of the traditional big three hurling counties cannot offer the same level of romance or innovation. Both are household names and unsurprising finalists even though neither managed to make it that far a year ago. Shamrocks' last win in 2009 completed a four-in-a-row that was only achieved previously by Carrickshock in the 1940s. But, like Kilkenny, they were denied a unique place in the record books in their quest for five. Equally like Kilkenny, they were gravely missing the services of the stricken Shefflin,
Today Shefflin is happily back in full bloom, an embodiment of the human body and spirit's capacity for regeneration. On Friday, he received a record tenth All Star award and while James Stephens boast more All Star awards than any other club in Kilkenny, Shefflin's haul is unique and untouched. He is part of a central axis at Ballyhale's disposal that would dishearten most club teams: Cha Fitzpatrick and hurler of the year Michael Fennelly in midfield, Shefflin, TJ Reid and the lightning-quick Colin Fennelly along the half-forward line.
Or if you want to look at it another way, within that quintet there are two hurler of the year recipients including the current holder and a young hurler of the year winner, Cha, who won three All Stars back-to-back from 2006-'08. Shefflin won hurler of the year on two occasions.
James Stephens will not be staring in terror at those statistics as it is not in their nature and they have a few decent players of their own. Eoin Larkin, their key forward threat, had the honour of being hurler of the year in 2008 -- Kilkenny's most impressive season during their all-conquering spell in the last decade. Jackie Tyrrell is a commanding centre-back figure and behind him there is Philly Larkin, defying age and carrying on the family tradition of protecting goal. Brian Cody's son Donnacha will be lining out at wing-back facing the full force of the Ballyhale attacking fleet. Both clubs have won All-Ireland titles in recent years and Oulart-The Ballagh will be waiting in the trenches a week from now in the Leinster championship.
The concession of seven goals in the last three outings will concern Shamrocks even if there is a qualification attached regarding the slippage against O'Loughlin Gaels in the semi-final. They were well in front when O'Loughlin Gaels made their burst and may have stepped off the gas. But they almost paid a high price and Martin Comerford was within inches of connecting and claiming another goal that would have drawn the game. In the other
semi-final, St Martin's saw a good
lead wiped out by James Stephens, Larkin leading the comeback with an individual scoring spree.
The Village are being managed by the former Laois hurler and manager Niall Rigney, in his first season. In the past they drew on the services of fellow Laois man Pat Critchley.
Liam O'Connor was part of the management team that helped them reach the 2008 county final and retired from a period playing with the city club the year before they won the All-Ireland. "In the 2008 and 2009 finals, the Village certainly were in a match-winning situation and both occasions Shamrocks were glad to hear the final whistle. This time round, looking at it from the outside in, if Shamrocks play to their potential it is hard to see them losing. I think they are priced at 5/4 for the All-Ireland and the Village are 20/1, if you want to put it in context. A lot depends on Jackie (Tyrrell) and Eoin Larkin hurling well. Shamrocks have five big players and we have two. Jackie is not superhuman; he can't mark three guys. I could certainly give the Village a chance but they need a big show from the supporting cast, the likes of Matt Ruth and others. Over the last number of years if Shamrocks were to be beaten, they would have said the Village were the team to beat them. Last year O'Loughlin Gaels came from nowhere and caught them by surprise."
Shamrocks are also a stronger proposition now than two and three years ago. Colin Fennelly's emergence is one reason for that, plus the blossoming of Michael Fennelly as a hugely influential player. They are less convincing at the back and have a new goalkeeper in Richie Reid, an outfield player with the Kilkenny minors. He made some dazzling stops from Eddie Brennan in an earlier round, has good hands and a sharp eye but is facing his first county final. The former goalkeeper, James Connolly, emigrated to Australia.
Part of today's programme at Nowlan Park will see one of Kilkenny's greatest assemblies of talent, Bennettsbridge, virtually untouchable in their day, honoured in a golden jubilee presentation marking their win in 1966.
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