Sunday 21 January 2018

New winners from same old counties

Martin Comerford, here in action against Mark McFadden of Loughgiel during their recent All-Ireland semi-final, has been crucial to O'Loughlin Gaels' march to today's Croke Park showdown with Clarinbridge.
Martin Comerford, here in action against Mark McFadden of Loughgiel during their recent All-Ireland semi-final, has been crucial to O'Loughlin Gaels' march to today's Croke Park showdown with Clarinbridge.

Martin Breheny Club SHC Titles

WHATEVER it is about the Galway and Kilkenny air, the Tommy Moore Cup certainly likes it.

Irrespective of the result of today's AIB club hurling final, it will summer in one of the two counties for the seventh successive year, having spent the previous six with Portumna (3), Ballyhale Shamrocks (2) and James Stephens.

That two other clubs should emerge from Galway and Kilkenny, both bidding for a first title, underlines the quality of the game at local level in both counties.

Kilkenny have, of course, succeeded in coalescing that excellence into a consistently outstanding inter-county force, whereas Galway are still trying to solve the puzzle of how to refine the talent that has done so well at club and county underage level into a unit which is capable of ending the long wait for the return of Liam MacCarthy.

Not since Cork and Kilkenny clubs dominated the scene in the 1970s have two counties taken such a tight grip of the All-Ireland scene.

Blackrock, Glen Rovers, St Finbarr's and James Stephens shared all the titles between 1972 and '79, before the arrival of Castlegar opened up the scene by bringing the cup west for the first time in 1980.

It has made nine similar journeys since then to Kiltormer, Sarsfields, Athenry and Portumna, and now it's the turn of Clarinbridge to challenge for the big prize.

There are those who claim that since they have no provincial championships to contend with, Galway champions are in a privileged position.

Automatic entry to the All-Ireland semi-final is definitely a big plus for the champions of such a strong county and has been exploited by Galway clubs.

Still, if they weren't good enough, they would quickly be found out by the Leinster and Munster champions, in particular.

Yet Galway clubs have been in every final since 2005, with Portumna having a fine strike rate of three wins from four attempts.

Portumna were well fancied to maintain their dominance in Galway last year but, just as 2010 All-Ireland champions Ballyhale were beaten in Kilkenny, Joe Canning and Co lost out in Galway.

It was Loughrea who ended Portumna's dominance, but they failed to build on it, losing to Clarinbridge in the final.

That presented Clarinbridge with a glorious opportunity to launch an All-Ireland campaign, similar to 2002 when they reached the final which they lost to Birr.


That game was played in Thurles (Croke Park was undergoing redevelopment), much to the disappointment of Clarinbridge, who were in the final for the first time.

However, nine years later, the club is finally getting its big day out in Croke Park.

O'Loughlin Gaels are in the final for the first time but, like Clarinbridge, won't be in any way overawed by the experience as they represent a county for whom Croke Park is a natural habitat.

In theory, a county's experience shouldn't have any impact on the club scene, but the psychological uplift of knowing that your fellow countymen have done so well in Croke Park has to be a major boost.

With Martin Comerford and Brian Hogan aboard the Gaels side, they won't lack for shrewd direction in either defence or attack.

The dominance of Galway and Kilkenny clubs in recent years raises the question -- what's happening to standards elsewhere? Why are two counties so dominant?

The major powerhouses which yielded seven titles for Cork in the 1970s are well off the big stage nowadays; Tipperary clubs have won just three All-Irelands, the last being all of 24 years ago when Borrisoleigh were successful in 1987; Wexford have only ever won one title (Buffers Alley in 1989); no Limerick, Waterford or Dublin club has ever won a title.

It's a very uneven spread behind Galway, Kilkenny and Cork (although the latter have won only two titles in over 30 years).

Today, a new name will be written into the roll of honour, and since Galway and Kilkenny sides have won 10 titles each, it will also carry the honour of being the club which takes their county into the outright lead on the All-Ireland table -- another big incentive for Clarinbridge and O'Loughlin Gaels as they head for Croke Park.

10 -- Galway

(Portumna 3, Athenry 3, Sarsfields 2, Kiltormer 1, Castlegar 1)

10 -- Kilkenny

(Ballyhale Shamrocks 5, James Stephens 3, St Martin's 1, Glenmore 1)

9 -- Cork

(Blackrock 3, Glen Rovers 2, St Finbarr's 2, Midleton 1, Newtownshandrum 1)

4 -- Offaly (Birr 4)

3 -- Tipperary

(Kilruane McDonaghs 1, Borrisoleigh 1, Roscrea 1)

2 -- Clare (St Josephs' 1, Sixmilebridge 1)

1 -- Wexford (Buffers Alley)

1 -- Antrim (Loughgiel Shamrocks)

Irish Independent

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