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Portumna ready to make history

The immortality of a three-in-a-row beckons for Portumna in Croke Park tomorrow. Revenge and the restoration of former glories, the primary motivations for Ballyhale. It's the club final everybody hoped for, and more than a few people predicted, but the big question is whether the Kilkenny champions can close the chasm which existed between the teams when they met in last year's semi-final in Thurles.

The scoreline -- 5-11 to 2-16 -- didn't even do justice to the extent of Portumna's superiority that day. They were rampant and, typically, plundered goals at the key times in the game and, though Ballyhale earned some scoreboard respectability, the defeat was essentially a hiding.

Ballyhale optimists might point to the fact that their team have at least come through a few serious tests of their credentials this year. The flip side of that argument is that they coughed up a spate of goal chances to a Newtownshandrum side not recognised as prolific raisers of the green flag and Oulart The Ballagh should never have got so close in the first place in their Leinster opener.

The main cause for concern is, as ever, Ballyhale's defence. Four of the six who were massacred by Portumna in Thurles started against Newtownshandrum, and though there have been a few positional switches, the end product is much the same: loose and lacking pace.

Which is not the sort of rearguard you want coming up against the most rampant forward line in the history of club hurling, particularly in Croke Park. Henry Shefflin was majestic against Newtownshandrum, however, and no team of which he is a member can really be dismissed as contenders.

Whether Portumna can get to those awesome levels again is the great unknown heading into tomorrow. By virtue of the fact that they won the Galway championship again, you'd imagine that they're still hurling well, but their All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Dunloy revealed little enough about whether they can rescale the heights of last February.

We trust, however, that there's nothing much wrong with Joe Canning's game. Or that of Damien Hayes -- two forwards of the highest calibre who tend to hurl some of their best stuff for the club. Individually, Canning or Hayes are good enough to burn any defence for big scores, but there's also a kind of telepathic understanding between the duo which makes them all the more dangerous in the same full-forward line.

Take, as a prime example, Hayes's first goal in last year's All-Ireland final cakewalk against De La Salle. Canning was in possession and shaped to shoot for a point but flicked a handpass over his right shoulder into Hayes's path at the last second. Given space, Hayes's pace and finishing are impossible to nullify, but Canning poses the most serious questions: his touch, vision and creativity adding layers to his growing reputation as one of the hurling's most prolific scorers.

No doubt, Portumna's half-backs will be under pressure. Shefflin is likely to roam and have a major say in the pace and style with which Ballyhale attack, while TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly have long-range scoring to the forefront of their arsenal.

It's just that Portumna also have that and more of it and seem right now to be somewhat unstoppable in possession. A classic in the making, no doubt, but one with a predictable ending.

ODDS: Portumna 4/7, Draw 9/1, Ballyhale 13/8

VERDICT: Portumna