Kerins expects open race for club title
DESPITE the weather delays, the hurling club championship has largely taken shape, with some traditional powers conspicuous by their absence.
For the first time since the winter of 2004, there will be no Ballyhale Shamrocks or Portumna in the All-Ireland semi-finals, while after more than a decade of consistent excellence, Birr are going through a rebuilding period.
De La Salle, Munster champions for the second time in three years, are the regulars, while either the star-studded Oulart-The Ballagh or O'Loughlin Gaels will be crowned Leinster champions in January.
The only Ulster club ever to win a national senior title, Loughgiel Shamrocks, are also back in the last four, but are considered rank outsiders.
On the other hand, Wexford champions Oulart are warm favourites to lift the All-Ireland title on St Patrick's Day, but their participation in the All- Ireland series seems far from certain, as in O'Loughlin Gaels they face Ballyhale's conquerors.
Unusally, the Galway champions are almost an afterthought. Clarinbridge weren't fancied to come out of the county, but with Galway, along with Kilkenny, leading the roll of honour in terms of All-Ireland championships won, they'll have to be respected ahead of their semi-final clash with De La Salle on February 19.
"Portumna and Ballyhale were the two dominant teams, so it's open, but there are still some very good teams there," said former Galway hurler Mark Kerins, who has been an integral part of Clarinbridge's success this season.
"De La Salle have won two Munsters in three years and been in an All-Ireland final and they are a great team. O'Loughlins and Oulart are very strong too. It's good that there are new teams there."
Clarinbridge beat Loughrea in the county final after a replay to cap a remarkable turnaround for the club, who won their first senior title in 2001. Earlier in the summer, they only managed qualification from their group on score difference.
"To be honest, halfway through the year it didn't look like the county cup was there. Things kind of changed when we came back after the summer. We knuckled down and got a bit of momentum going," said Kerins.
The 2001 campaign ended in bitter disappointment with a heavy defeat in the All-Ireland club final to Birr.
"We beat Ballygunner in the semi-final and met that great Birr team in the final. The occasion got the better of us. They were way more experienced, and beat us quite easily in the end. It was disappointing because we didn't do ourselves justice at all.
"The following year Portumna beat us in a game we could have won, and that team gradually broke up in the next few years and we were in transition."
Kerins believes there's more to come from Portumna and that, in the future, the Galway champions will continue to have a big say in the All-Ireland.
"There have been three really strong teams who have dominated Galway, and they have won a good few All-Irelands between them too, so the club sides have done quite well," he said.