Final on a knife-edge as Ballyduff eye title
Damian Stack takes a look back at the semi-finals and a look ahead to this weekend's County Senior Hurling Final in Austin Stack Park
Seasons have a way of spooling out all on their own accord. Before a ball is pucked we have our impressions and assumptions. We draw upon league form. We draw upon the previous year's results as a guide.
You pays your money and takes your chances. Sometimes you're right. Sometimes not. It's the nature of sport and the nature of the enterprise. Things happen that you don't anticipate. Some players roll back the years. Others begin to show their age. Empires rise and empires fall on the puck of a ball.
Take Causeway as an example. What torture this past fortnight must have been to them. It wouldn't take a particularly wild flight of fancy for them to imagine themselves this week preparing for a county senior hurling final.
After all they'd Ballyduff practically beaten in their quarter-final. A few seconds more, that's all they needed. Instead Gary O'Brien - who'd been subbed off and then back on - popped up and pulled on a loose ball in the danger-zone.
In the blink of an eye the ball rattled the back of the net. In the blink of an eye a two point lead turned to a one-point deficit. In a blink of an eye a dream died. In the blink of an eye the embers of the Ballyduff dynasty were reignited.
Probably it's fair to say that, while Ballyduff finding their way back to form and back into a county final is by no means a surprise, most people felt it more likely others would rise and supplant them as the main challengers to a three in-a-row chasing Kilmoyley.
Hopes were high for Causeway (who we've mentioned already), for St Brendans and for Lixnaw. In our conversations with knowledgeable hurling people in the county before the championship Ballyduff were always in the mix, although it was usually expressed in terms like 'and of course Ballyduff will be there too'.
These people were conditioned by generations of experience to never take Ballyduff lightly, to always expect something from the green and white. Even if they saw greater potential in sides like St Brendans and Lixnaw something told them to beware Ballyduff.
Far from it being a piseog the fear and respect for Ballyduff is perfectly logical stance to take. When a team is capable of turning around a game the way they did in the semi-final, they're capable of anything.
Such was the impressive nature of that second half performance that they've been installed as favourites for Sunday's final. We should, however, beware of that impulse too. Thirty minutes of hurling isn't enough to be basing anything conclusive upon.
Ballyduff's turgid first half performance is as much a part of the form they've demonstrated this season as their scintillating second half destruction of the reigning champions of two years standing.
All the same the brilliance of that second half display was evidence for a team finding themselves and finding their form at the best possible time. After the game their chairman, Liam Ross, enthused that it was the best half of hurling seen in the county for the past couple of seasons.
Even allowing for a certain amount of exuberant exaggeration, you know what, he probably wasn't too far off the mark. There was a ferocity as well as an aggression to the whirlwind Bobby Thornhill's men unleashed upon Kilmoyley.
And it's that aggression and physicality that would lead one to towards thinking the final tilts in their direction. There were times in the first half of Lixnaw's semi-final when they seemed to struggle to come to terms with a more gnarled St Brendans side.
It's not altogether that surprising that they did. This is a young Lixnaw side, as Fergus Fitzmaurice and Mark Foley seek to rejuvenate their side with a lot of the exciting young talent coming through the ranks at Hermitage Park.
Lixnaw are not obviously a team composed solely of neophytes. They're back-boned by players with great experience, guys who can take it and dish it out if needs be, guys like Pat Corridan and Stephen Power, guys like John Griffin and Raymond Galvin.
Still Lixnaw aren't set up to win an arm-wrestle we suspect. Their aim on Sunday will be to empower their skilful younger players - Shane Conway principal amongst them - to play the game upon their terms.
The joyous thing about young Conway is that, despite his slight frame and tender years, he can hang on in there with the best of them. He took some big hits against St Brendans, but was still the one to take the clutch frees and the clutch scores.
His older brother Michael, of course, remains central to Lixnaw's hopes and that big brother, little brother dynamic is emblematic of the team as a whole. The right combination of youth and experience can be hugely potent.
Indeed, Lixnaw were always expected to challenge this year because of that. They're building nicely this past twelve months. The hammering they meted out to their opponents in Sunday's final during the county league - 4-18 to 0-13 - was a warning shot across the bows of everybody else.
Their only real misstep was a slightly faltering performance in the semi-final. Even then the ten week break they had to endure between second round and semi-final is context you simply have to bear in mind.
St Brendans had reason to be disappointed with their defeat, but we maintain that, even before Rory Horgan's dismissal and despite John Egan's goal, Lixnaw were in the process of turning that game around.
In the second half Fergus Fitzmaurice's side took nine from eleven scoring chances, a demonstration that if Ballyduff are indisciplined or lax at any stage, this Lixnaw side will be ready and waiting to pounce.
Ballyduff will feel that if they can be as disciplined in Sunday's final as they were in the second half of their semi-final victory over Kilmoyley they'll have a real chance of victory here. If instead, however, they give away sloppy frees like they did in the first half they will be punished.
Really and truly this is a difficult final to call. Most people will probably lean Ballyduff's way on the basis of that brilliant second half display. Against that though you've got to consider the gap between competitive games Lixnaw had to endure.
There's no question about it, Lixnaw will be better in Sunday's final than they were in the semi-finals. Will that be enough to see them overhaul Ballyduff? Time will tell.
About the only thing we can say for certain is that we're in for a battle this weekend. A couple of points either way should prove the difference.