Club hurling showpiece may get the match-up it deserves
After years of one-way traffic, this year's race to St Patrick's Day could be different, writes Dermot Crowe
SEMI-FINALS are best won quietly. Here's the ideal: you execute the task, attract as little attention as possible, and save your best till last.
Yet over the last 15 years, a time when the All-Ireland club hurling championship has enjoyed soaring popularity, semi-finals have often done most of the entertaining, surpassing their role as ushers. The hurling final has frequently suffered stage-fright, and failed to live up to the promise created by epic matches in the penultimate phase.
So, the recent patterns would lead us to expect today's semi-finals will be as good as it gets. The keener attention will be on Newtownshandrum's meeting with Ballyhale at Thurles, a place that has hosted many cracking semi-finals in the recent past. It is a novel pairing but a reheating of the Kilkenny-Cork rivalry that enriched the past decade. Newtown, having rediscovered their winning habit, must confront one of the more polished sides of the last three years, a legendary name in the competition, a four-time winner.
Dunloy, who face overwhelming favourites Portumna at Parnell Park, have been a major contributor to exciting semi-finals and in making the competition more interesting. But it has come at a price. The 2004 win over Portumna followed their eclipse of Athenry in 1995 and the equally shock defeat of Mount Sion in 2002. In Dunloy, they still talk of the money they took from the bookies after putting out Mount Sion that day in Clones. Those wins against the odds have been good for the competition's integrity and sense of democracy but they have mostly led to one-sided finals.
Semi-finals have offered Ulster sides hope of landing a scalp, as teams return after the winter lay-off following the provincial championships. Newtown were almost spectacularly caught by Ballygalget on their last appearance at this stage in 2006, winning by a point after trailing by five early in the second half. It is unlikely to happen today, but if it did the excitement would be tempered by the realisation that a win for an Ulster side in the semi-final usually acts as the prelude to a convincing final defeat. There's the rub.
Having beaten Athenry, Dunloy brought Birr to a replay in the 1995 final and were well beaten. The next year Dunloy beat Glenmore in the semi-finals for the second time in the decade, by 12 points, but in the last ten minutes of the final against Sixmilebridge the floodgates opened and they ended up leaking five goals and losing by 13 points. After beating Mount Sion, the final again disappointed. Birr won by 11. After putting out Portumna, they lost the '04 final by eight points to Newtown.
Only one team, Loughgiel Shamrocks, has managed to win an All-Ireland club title, in 1983. Having to beat two top sides from the south has generally proven too much. But they have been competitive unlike the early years of the competition. In the first decade hidings were commonplace. In the first year of the club championships, 1971, Loughgiel lost 2-8 to 6-10 to eventual winners Roscrea. The next year they suffered 21-point lashing from Rathnure at the same juncture. Through that first decade no Ulster team reached the final and the average losing margin by an Ulster hurling team in the semi-finals was 15 points.
By 1980, there were signs of new life, a new beginning. Ballycastle reached the final and broke that barrier by overcoming Crumlin 3-9 to 0-8. Castlegar beat Blackrock in an upset in the other semi-final by two goals and won the final by a goal. Ballyhale met Ballycastle in the semi-finals the next year and found them sticky opposition, winning 2-11 to 0-12. Two years later, Loughgiel stunned Moycarkey-Borris in the semi-finals and won a replayed final against St Rynagh's in Casement Park. The drawn match was the first club hurling final in Croke Park.
Ulster sides again struggled after Loughgiel's win, not qualifying for a final until O'Donovan Rossa beat Patrickswell in 1989. But they were not being destroyed. And they were not being taken lightly. The perils of losing focus over the Christmas break were emphasised the same season. Buffers Alley won the final and overcame Four Roads in the semi-finals, the Roscommon champions having famously knocked out Abbeyknockmoy in the Connacht final. This sensation occurred at a time when Galway were All-Ireland champions, the seat of power.
As if frightened out of their wits, Sarsfields refused to allow Tooreen of Mayo a score in the 1989 Connacht final. But Galway clubs still had to endure horror stories. In December 1990, Kiltormer met St Gabriel's of London and were beaten in Athenry after extra-time. Gabriels lost the All-Ireland semi-final by 21 points to Patrickswell. Kiltormer roared back the next season to win the All-Ireland. London teams remained a threat -- the next season, 1992/'93, Desmonds put out Cushendall at Ruislip in the quarter-finals.
Last year's semi-finals gave us more drama. Cushendall forced De La Salle into extra-time while Portumna gave an exhibition against Ballyhale in a surprisingly one-sided contest. The final again demurred. Nineteen points separated the champions of Waterford and Galway and later in the year the Deise exacted some measure of retribution at Thurles in the All-Ireland quarter finals on the inter-county stage. Portumna were too strong for Birr the previous year as well, winning by ten. The same anti-climax spoiled the final in 2007, when Loughrea were unable to stop Ballyhale. The seven-point victory margin in no way flattered the winners.
The two finals immediately preceding were won by five-point margins which again belied the superiority of the winning teams, Portumna and James Stephens. In 2004, the winning distance was eight points, 11 in '03, eight in '02, eight in '01 and four in 2000. The first final of the last decade was the closest winning margin but even that match, won by Athenry over St Joseph's Doora-Barefield, did not produce a thrilling encounter. Over the last 20 years, leaving aside the drawn match between Dunloy and Birr in '95, the only two finals to serve up tight contests were Ballyhale's win over Ballybrown in 1990, and Sarsfields' victory over Toomevara four years later.
Many of the better matches were to be found in the provinces, and in the semi-finals. Three years ago at Portlaoise, Ballyhale came from 12 points down to beat Toomevara 2-20 to 3-14 to reach the final on St Patrick's Day. Birr v Athenry at Thurles in 2000 was another cliffhanger, matched by the Birr v Clarecastle encounter in the semi-finals two years earlier that went to a replay. The same month Dunloy forced Sarsfields to a second day before Joe Cooney's mercurial intervention. In '99, again, the best hurling came in the semi-finals when St Joseph's pipped Athenry at Semple Stadium, a point between them at the final whistle. Thurles has hosted many of the memorable semi-finals of the last 15 years including the last which embellished the Cork-Kilkenny rivalry then very much in vogue. In 2004, Newtown needed a second day to slay O'Loughlin Gaels, before they coasted to an easy win in the final over Dunloy.
Today's match between Newtown and Ballyhale offers the promise of more fireworks. And, given the odds on Portumna being in Croke Park again next month, the chances of a compelling final -- long overdue -- don't seem too remote or wishful.