MUNSTER CLUB SFC FINAL
Austin Stacks v St Finbarrs (Cork)
Sunday, January 16
Semple Stadium, Thurles
Throw-in at 1.45pm
Referee: Chris Maguire (Clare)
BOTH Austin Stacks and St Finbarr’s have been put to the pin of their respective collars at different stages of their sojourns to Sunday’s highly-anticipated Munster Club SFC Final at Semple Stadium, Thurles.
Indeed, if you go back to their county semi-final performances, the Tralee men required a penalty shoot-out before finally getting over the challenge of an inspired St Brendan’s, while it was the exact same scenario for the Cork champions in their dramatic victory over Castlehaven.
After an absolute epic, with the protagonists deadlocked after extra-time, 3-16 apiece, it took a wonderful save from St Finbarr’s goalkeeper John Kerins from Castlehaven’s Rory Maguire, and a subsequent coolly-dispatched penalty from the winners’ number one, to seal a county decider passage for Paul O’Keeffe’s charges.
In the county final itself, they were again pummelled up against the ropes by Clonakilty, but thanks to an inspired display by Ian Maguire in the middle of the park, St Finbarr’s had enough resolve and determination to edge their way past the finishing post by the minimum of margins (0-14 to 0-13).
That followed earlier triumphs over Eire Og in the quarter-finals, 1-16 to 0-12, and three group stage victories over Ballincollig, 2-15 to 1-17, where they almost lost a 13-point advantage, Ilen Rovers, 0-17 to 1-11, and Clonakilty again by 1-12 to 1-5. Most certainly, the Rebels’ standard-bearers have been battle-hardened by their experiences.
In the provincial semi-final before Christmas, they had eight points, 2-14 to 0-12, to spare over Eire Og of Ennis, with Down’s Colin McCrickard raising the green flags, and it is a potential starting full-forward line of McCrickard, Cillian Myers-Murray and top scorer Stephen Sherlock that will definitely have occupied the thoughts of Wayne Quillinan and his Austin Stacks management team.
Sherlock, in particular, has been a revelation in this campaign, notching a phenomenal 3-50 in their seven championship outings to date, including 2-10 in that classic encounter with Castlehaven. A recall to the county fold under new manager Keith Ricken looks an absolute shoo-in.
Not that it’s all about their inside attacking line. The influence of Maguire, one of the best midfielders in the country, will have to be subdued to some degree, while former Cork star Michael Shields still offers an abundance of streetwise know-how. Brian Hayes is one of the fastest-developing players in the county, while Sam Ryan, Jamie Burns, Colin Lyons and Colm Scully are solid defenders.
Austin Stacks will be more than prepared for all that however. Conceding between six and ten points every game in their run to Sunday’s Munster decider, Quillinan’s side are one of the best organised collectives that have come out of the Kingdom in a while. Indeed, if the likes of Colin Griffin, Dylan Casey and, potentially, Ronan Shanahan, can hold their own against the Finbarr’s full-forward line, the Rock Street men will be fancying their chances.
Similarly, Joseph O’Connor and Greg Horan have huge jobs on their hands in curtailing Maguire, while Stacks will be hoping to pick up from where they left off in their attacking play against Newcastle West, with Michael O’Gara’s distribution from deep a serious weapon in their armoury. Darragh O’Brien and Brendan O’Sullivan were also very impressive last time out.
Of course, Kieran Donaghy’s talismanic presence will be vital too. Using his personality and big-game nous to restrain his younger teammates from getting overwhelmed with the whole occasion will be as vital as his in-game ability. Could we see the resurrection of an age-old Kerry versus Cork battle between Donaghy and Shields at some stage? That could be something to behold.
Austin Stacks know what they have to do. At least break even with Maguire at midfield, quell the threat of the St Finbarr’s full-forward line, keep the concession rate of scores to ten or less, and it promises to be another wonderful afternoon in this Rockies’ fairytale season.
VERDICT: Austin Stacks