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ballyhale can top 'dogfight'



(Thurles, Tomorrow 2.30, live TG4)

THEY'VE never met in competitive action, but it won't feel like that tomorrow afternoon when the players of Ballyhale Shamrocks and Newtownshandrum come bursting out of the Semple Stadium tunnel, chasing their latest All-Ireland dream.

This is but the latest instalment of a Kilkenny-Cork rivalry that dominated the hurling landscape throughout the past decade, dating back to the 1999 All-Ireland senior final.

Ballyhale and Newtown may be strangers, but you can't say that about Henry Shefflin and Cha Fitzpatrick in one corner, opposed by Ben and Jerry O'Connor in the other. The Reid brothers and Michael Fennelly know all about this very special rivalry. Ditto Pat Mulcahy and Cathal Naughton in the Newtown camp.

Little wonder, then, that both Brian Cody and Denis Walsh -- attending this week's launch of the Allianz Hurling League -- were canvassed for their views on the big club showdown between the All-Ireland champions of 2004 (Newtownshandrum) and 2007 (Ballyhale).

Suffice to say, they were both looking towards Thurles with giddy anticipation. Neither was inclined to stick his neck on the line in predicting a winner, maybe for political reasons, but their uncertainty was understandable all the same.


"Either team is capable of winning that game -- I have no idea who's going to win it," Cody insisted. "Ballyhale's desire is absolute, but I'm certain that Newtown's is absolute as well. Both teams are littered with excellent individual players, and both teams have a phenomenal record in the competition ... Ah, it's going to be just an outstanding game."

Twelve months ago, if anything, there was a more excitable build-up to the semi-final between Shamrocks and Portumna. It proved worth the wait -- if only because of Portumna's majestic first-half display, as Joe Canning and co reinforced their claims as the greatest club hurling side of the past decade.

Ballyhale have recovered from that chastening 5-11 to 1-16 defeat -- albeit slowly at first. They laboured past James Stephens to complete a famous Kilkenny SHC four in a row, then were pushed to the brink of an early Leinster exit by Oulart-The-Ballagh. Having prevailed in extra-time, they were far more convincing winners against Ballyboden St Enda's and Tullamore.

Mind you, they retained their Leinster crown without having to move out of second gear against the unheralded Offaly champions. Tomorrow promises to be infinitely more competitive, as a reinvigorated Newtown have defied previous suggestions of a team in decline.

A second-half tour de force saw them demolish holders Sarsfields in the Cork decider but, since then, it has been a case of digging out results -- they had one point to spare against Thurles Sarsfields, three against Adare, and two against Ballygunner to win their first Munster title since 2005. The ageless O'Connor twins have been pivotal to their progress, the magnificent Ben especially.

"If Ballyhale are anything like Newtown they're a rare species," suggested Denis Walsh, the Cork manager highlighting the latter's will to win, fantastic ability -- and mobility.

"It's going to be a dogfight because I'd say both of them would be looking to have a cut off Portumna, presuming they come through (their semi-final). Newtown wouldn't fear Ballyhale, that's the one thing I know from the Cork side of it."

ODDS: Ballyhale 4/6, Draw 10/1, Newtown 13/10

VERDICT: Ballyhale