Looking to deliver on great expectations
This year's rivals must buck trend of bad hurling finals, writes Christy O'Connor
Before last year's All-Ireland club hurling final, it was all on the line. A win for Ballyhale Shamrocks would put them on the top of the roll of honour with five All-Ireland club titles. However, a win for Portumna would have reaffirmed their dynasty and cemented their status as the greatest club hurling team of all time with three All-Irelands in a row.
The stage looked set for a game that had the potential to be one of the great All-Ireland club finals. Certainly, no other decider of the previous 15 years had been loaded with so many big names -- Joe Canning, Henry Shefflin, Ollie Canning, James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, Damien Hayes, TJ Reid, Eoin Lynch, Michael Fennelly. Additionally, no other final in that timespan had been loaded with the same weight of expectation or anticipation.
Yet a game with the potential to stand apart produced a disappointing match. In one sense, it wasn't that much of a surprise, because, despite all the epic games in the history of the All-Ireland club hurling championships, the one downward trend that the competition hasn't been able to arrest in the last 15 years is the poor quality of All-Ireland finals.
Of those last 15 finals, 13 of them were poor games, while three of the last four were total routs. The only quality final was between Athenry and Graigue-Ballycallan in 2001, and even then, Athenry ran away with the match in extra-time, winning by eight points.
The average losing margin over the last decade is eight points and eight of those finals were over with 15 minutes remaining. Although the final with the lowest winning margin -- Athenry's four point win over St Joseph's Doora-Barefield in 2000 -- went to the wire, it was still a patchy game that failed to live up to its huge pre-match hype.
Perhaps that pressure has been a key factor because of such high stakes. Some teams have been vastly superior, but many of the teams have just failed to perform. Clarinbridge went into the 2002 final with a team of young, fast and slick forwards and were expected to run Birr ragged in the vast expanses of Thurles. Birr restricted Clarinbridge to 1-5 and won pulling up.
The great Dunloy team of the 1990s were unlucky not to win an All-Ireland -- they led Birr by four points at half-time in the 1995 final, having played into a tempest of wind and snow and hailstones and could only score a point in the second half. A year later they trailed Sixmilebridge by only two points with 15 minutes to go, twice failed narrowly to score a goal and ended up conceding 2-5 without reply.
The Dunloy team of the 2000s, though, just weren't good enough. They had the experience and physique, which allowed them to prosper in All-Ireland semi-finals on tight pitches against rookie teams, Mount Sion and Portumna. Then they just weren't able for the pace and width of the new Croke Park field in 2003 and 2004 and were well beaten by Birr and Newtownshandrum.
The deficit in pace between sides has also been a decisive factor and the new Croke Park pitch really suited the Portumna attack, who were able to rip one-paced Birr and De La Salle defences apart in the 2008 and 2009 finals.
The bottom line of grinding out a result, though, has also sometimes contributed to the trend of poor finals. Although the wind and wind-chill factor was an issue for the 2006 final, Newtownshandrum and Portumna looked set to play out a classic.
Portumna had been averaging 2-18 all season, but they came armed with a game plan and once they got ahead, they dug in for a battle to stop Newtown's running game.
They only scored 2-8 (2-2 from play) and still won by five points. It could even be argued that Portumna's performance that day set the precedent for modern hurling, as Kilkenny adopted the same template in that year's All-Ireland senior final against Cork.
What has made the trend of poor All-Ireland club finals even more difficult to reconcile is the number of classics and epic battles played out in semi-finals over the past 15 seasons; the Birr and Clarecastle replay in 1998; St Joseph's Doora-Barefield and Athenry (1999); Birr and Athenry (2000); the Graigue-Ballycallan versus Sixmilebridge drawn game in 2001; the drawn Newtownshandrum versus O'Loughlin Gaels match in 2004; the epic between Ballyhale and Toomevara in 2007; Ballyhale and Newtownshandrum in 2010.
Maybe it's just a quirk, but semi-final pairings have often had a final feel about them; seven of the eight winners of those above games went on to emphatically claim the All-Ireland a month later.
In the last 10 years, there have been All-Ireland final pairings which seemed like the last word, champion against champion, champion against champion-elect; St Joseph's and Athenry in 2000, Athenry and James Stephens in 2005, Portumna and Newtown in 2006, Portumna and Birr in 2008; Portumna and Ballyhale last year. And on each occasion, the game was still a disappointment.
If you were to excavate deeper, you could have gathered enough evidence afterwards to point towards the reasons.
St Joseph's are the only Munster team to reach successive All-Ireland club finals, but the exertions had tired them out, their form collapsed after Christmas and Athenry were gunning for them after the previous year's semi-final.
Newtownshandrum's post-Christmas form was similarly poor in 2006 and Portumna were primed to make up for the disappointment of losing to Dunloy in the 2004 semi-final.
In 2005 and 2008, the Athenry and Birr teams that lost All-Ireland finals, were spun out and past their best after all their epic achievements of the previous decade. Similarly, Portumna's efforts of trying to win a historic three-in-a-row caught up with them last year.
This year's final between Clarinbridge and O'Loughlin Gaels doesn't have the same high profile as other finals, but the potential is there for a quality match. The hope is that the trend will be smashed, but recent final history issues another warning.