Ballyhea will relish underdogs' status
County PIHC Final
Pairc Uí Chaoimh, Cork Sundau, October 12 1.45pm
It was a day that Ballyhea won't forget in a hurry.
Eleven years ago, they took on Newtownshandrum in the third round of the county senior hurling championship and they were on the receiving end of a sixteen-point from their near neighbours in North-Cork. It was a painful experience, to put it mildly, and it brought it forcibly home that the time had arrived to bury their pride and accept that they were no longer equipped to make any sort of a decent impact in the top flight.
After 23 years competing in the senior grade, during which they contested two county finals in 1984 and 1995, the decision to relinquish their status wouldn't have been taken lightly, but it was the wisest course of action, all the more so since Ballyhea's ageing team wasn't going to get any better, and that the rebuilding process was bound to progress more smoothly at a lower level.
It has been tough going for Ballyhea in the interim and only twice since the inception of the premier intermediate grade in 2004 have they advanced beyond Round 4. Yet, they showed they weren't too far off the pace two years ago when running eventual champions Ballinhassig to four points in the quarter-final.
In light of their rather tame exit at the hands of 2012 intermediate kingpins Kilworth last year, however, they wouldn't have been especially fancied to go all the way this season, notwithstanding the fact that the PIHC is highly competitive, with practically every team involved capable of beating another on a given day.
As things transpired, Ballyhea managed to strike a rich vein of form this summer, which has carried them to victory over Mallow, 2013 runners-up Castlelyons, after a replay, and Cloyne in turn. It means they are now just one game away from reclaiming their senior status and savouring a county title triumph for the first time since their successful run at intermediate level in 1980.
In next Sunday's final at Pairc Uí Chaoimh, it will be a familiar foe barring Ballyhea's path to glory.
On no fewer than three occasions since 2010 have Ballyhea crossed swords with Newcestown in the championship, all of which were first round games. The score currently stands at 2 to 1 in Newcestown's favour, as they were victors by 1-13 to 1-9 four years ago, and by 1-21 to 1-9 in 2011.
Ballyhea came out on top by a point in their last meeting in 2012, but it goes without saying that the stakes will be much higher on Sunday, and that none of the recent collisions between the sides will have a bearing on how their forthcoming showdown is likely to unfold.
Newcestown have never tasted success at intermediate level in hurling, and one has to go back as far as 1992, when they lifted the junior crown, to discover the last time they won a county title, but they have been knocking hard on the door in the premier grade over the past few years, reaching the semi final in 2011, which was lost to Youghal after a replay, going under to title-winners Ballinhassig by a point in 2012, and finishing just two points adrift in a quarter-final clash with Castlelyons last season.
They have been going great guns so far this year, clocking up decisive wins over Kilbrittain and Carrigaline, comfortably accounting for Valley Rovers in the quarter-final, and grinding out a hard-earned victory over 2013 intermediate champions Kanturk last time out.
Played in torrential rain, scores were always going to be at a premium in their semi final clash with Kanturk, and it would way off the mark to suggest that Newcestown's return of 12 points, four more than the losers, on the day is an indication that they are lacking in fire-power.
In Eoin Kelly, Daniel Twomey, Cork minor Luke Meade and the vastly experienced Cathrach Keane they possess forwards capable of posing problems for any defence, but it's primarily the overall balance in the team that makes them such formidable opponents. They will probably go in as slight favourites against Ballyhea, but that will suit the North-Cork men down to the ground, as they are accustomed to donning the underdog's mantle at this stage.
All through the campaign, Ballyhea have managed to come up trumps against the odds, and, arguably, they have had to negotiate a more difficult passage to the decider than Newcestown.
Beating Cloyne, who had earlier ousted championship favourites Ballinhassig, in the semi final was certainly a huge feather in their cap, and if they can perform to a similar level on Sunday they will be in every chance of delivering the goods.
Should the evergreen Neil Ronan reproduce the tour-de-force at centre-forward that saw him contribute 12 points to Ballyhea's 0-18 to 2-10 over Cloyne, they are going to very hard to stop, but Pa O'Callaghan is another forward who will take a lot of watching.
Keeping them in check will be a priority for Newcestown, and the South-West side are very strong in the half back line, so it isn't inconceivable that centre-back James Desmond and Darren Heffernan will be up to the task of limiting the input from Ballyhea's two most potent attackers.
It's on the cards, however, that Ronan and O'Callaghan won't be contained for the entire game, and if the seasoned Maurice O'Sullivan puts his best foot forward at midfield, and Mike Morrissey and Barry Coleman provide the leadership at the heart of a defence that conceded little easily against Cloyne, Ballyhea might have what it takes to shade the issue.