Task of lowering Avondhu's colours will be beyond Newtown
AVONDHU and Newtownshandrum will be bidding to join Imokilly, Erins Ownand Muskerry in the semi-finals of the TSB county senior hurling championshipwhen they cross swords in a mouth-watering North-Cork derby showdown atCharleville on Saturday evening.
Champions in 1996, when current Newtown players Pat Mulcahy and John McCarthywere part of the team which got the better of Imokilly in a final replay,Avondhu have struggled to make an impact since then.
Pipped by Sarsfields at the quarter-final stage the following year, theyfell at the first hurdle to Carbery in '98, and they made an early exitagain at the hands of eventual champions, Blackrock, last season.
Their display against the Rockies last year was reasonably encouraging,however, as they led by eleven points at one stage in the first-half.
They still held a sizeable advantage at the interval, but Blackrock introducedAlan Browne, who was unable to start due to injury, in attack for thesecond-half, and he transformed the match.
In the end, Avondhu were beaten by seven points, but it appears as if theyhave put that traumatic experience firmly behind them, and are now in themood to make another bold bid for ultimate honours.
They certainly have done all that has been asked of them so far this season,fashioning a decisive 2-15 to 0-10 victory over Glen Rovers in their openingouting, and dispatching Carrigdhoun, 1-17 to 0-14, comfortably enough afterthat.
There is no denying that Avondhu possess a very strong team on paper,liberally sprinkled, as it is, with players who have tasted inter-countyhurling in one grade or another, including Cork senior star Fergal McCormack,who has been a hugely commanding figure at centre-back during their twovictories to date.
Kilworth's Will Twomey and Damien McNamara, Ballygiblin's Diarmuid Lynchand Dromina's Liam Hayes are other highly accomplished defenders, and Avondhuaren't lacking in quality forwards either, with such as Fermoy's ShaneKilleen,Ballygiblin's Dave Moher, Mallow's Ray O'Connell and Pa Dineen, Killavullen'sBrian O'Driscoll, Dromina's Martin Finn, Kilworth's Will O'Donoghue, andJonathan O'Callaghan of Castletownroche to choose from.
They are sure to face a very tricky assignment, however, against anup-and-coming Newtownshandrum side which will include the bulk of the playersinvolved in the club's back-to-back county U-21 triumphs of '98 and '99.
Yet, while Newtown have chalked up a couple of impressive wins overBallincollig and UCC in this year's championship, it remains to be seenif they are mature enough to cope with a team of Avondhu's calibre at thisstage.
The fact is that most of their players are eligible for u-21 duty againthis year, and, in the circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude thatit might take Newtown another season or two to reach their full potential.
Nobody disputes that Newtown have plenty of ability, and any team containingsuch prodigious talents as the O'Connor twins, Ben and Jerry, John PaulKing, Phil Noonan, Brendan Mulcahy, Alan O'Brien and Ian Kelleher has tobe respected.
In Pat Mulcahy, they possess one of the best centre-backs in the county,and the experience of John McCarthy will also be an invaluable asset asthey attempt to curb the Avondhu forwards.
But it was plain for all to see that Newtown were far from being the finishedproduct when they were forced to bow to Imokilly in last year'squarter-final.
And it can be safely said that they will face the most searching test oftheir credentials since the Imokilly game 12 months ago when they throwdown the gauntlet to Avondhu on Saturday evening.
My guess is that the task of lowering the colours of their home divisionwill prove beyond them.
But, at the same time, I'm not prepared to completely dismiss Newtown'sprospects of coming up trumps in what promises to be a full-blooded andgripping encounter which is bound to draw a bumper crowd to Charleville.
Awaiting the winners in the semi-final are Muskerry, who, with Blarney'sStephen O'Donoghue, Inniscarra's John O'Mahony, Cloughduv's Kevin Murray,and Grenagh's Tom Kenny and especially John Russell playing leading roles,shaded the issue against Midleton last weekend.
Meanwhile, Erins Own, with Brian Corcoran at his majestic best at centre-back,were much more convincing winners over Carbery, but the top performancewas undoubtedly produced by Imokilly during the demolition job on Cloyne.
Not surprisingly, Imokilly have now been installed as fairly warm favouritesto collect a third title in four seasons.
But it can be taken for granted that canny team coach Seanie O'Leary willbe making every effort to ensure that his charges keep their feet firmlyon the ground in the wake of their facile win over Cloyne.
And he certainly won't be looking beyond the semi-final clash with ErinsOwn, for whom his son, Cork minor Tomás, has been very prominent in attackthis year.
With three decisive victories over Glen Rovers, St Finbarr's and Cloyneunder the belt, Erins Own are bound to be brimming with confidence at themoment.
And they might well be inclined to regard it as a favourable omen that whenthey lifted the crown for the one and only time in 1992, their victims inthe semi-final were Imokilly.
Nevertheless, Imokilly would appear to be the team that will take all thebeating now, and I have a feeling that this year's final will be a repeatof the '96 decider between the East-Cork divisional side and Avondhu.
Following their convincing victory over Bantry Blues in a replay lastweekend, Nemo Rangers now head the betting in the race for the TSB countysenior football championship crown.
And, while the road ahead is hardly without its pitfalls, Nemo must bestrongly fancied to secure a place in the last four when they take on StFinbarr's at Pairc Ui Chaoimh on Sunday evening.
In the other two county championship fixtures down for decision on Sunday,I'm giving Killeagh, who will obviously be looking to Joe Deane and MarkLanders to provide the main inspiration, a tentative vote to advance atthe expense of Delanys in intermediate hurling at Cobh, and I think Youghal,junior kingpins last year, could shade the issue in their intermediatefootball clash with Macroom at Pairc Ui Rinn.
It will be interesting to see the official reaction to the news last weekthat the recently formed GPA has signed a major sponsorship deal, involvingten leading inter-county players, which is in clear breach of GAA rules.
But I think there are many who would regard it as hypocritical in the extremeshould the GAA decide to take the high moral ground on the issue.
After all, the fact that, for no other reason than to facilitate the peoplein the corporate boxes, the All-Ireland series in both hurling and footballare being staged on a flawed Croke Park pitch this year shows just wherethe GAA's priorities lie nowadays.