Tom Ryan (Clara) under pressure from Mark Kelly (O'Loughlin Gaels) during the Senior Hurling Championship Quarter Final in Nowlan Park. (Photo: Eoin Hennessy)
It has taken 44 games to get to this point, and now 70 minutes of endeavour will decide a season’s work.
In fairness to champions, Clara and challengers, Ballyhale Shamrocks, they always looked genuine and serious contenders and it is no great surprise that they will contest the senior hurling championship final in Nowlan Park today
They gave us a preview of what we might expect when they clashed at the same venue on April 13. Shamrocks won by 2-16 to 2-14 in a first round league tie.
League and championship fare is worlds apart. All that tie told us was that there was little between them. Expect a close match.
Clara, the double winners last season, will be chasing their third crown to go with last year’s and the initial one in 1986. They will do so without the great talent that is Conor Phelan, a former Kilkenny senior, under-21 and intermediate All-Ireland medal winner.
He will be a loss, but he is making nice progress after recent heart surgery. That is the main thing.
Clara are the team of the moment. Prior to last year’s double, they did the double at intermediate level the previous season. They followed that with victory in the All-Ireland intermediate club final, a run which prepared them brilliantly for their return to the senior ranks in 2013.
A take of five major titles in about two seasons is serious, serious stuff. Their followers have never experienced the likes. All those matches and victories and varying challenges brought the Clara squad on a ton.
Hope no longer rules. They now believe they can be winners, and winners every day they go out.
In the opening championship clash against James Stephens, an early second half goal from Keith Hogan gave Clara the edge. They kept three to four points ahead from there to the finish.
Next up against O’Loughlin Gaels, who had been crowned league championship the previous week, they didn’t perform particularly well, in the sense that their hurling didn’t flow. Yet, the Gaels were kept in a bind and never looked like winning.
The semi-final against Carrickshock was awkward at times more than difficult. Again Clara found the right gears when required. For them this season, the league was about preparing for the championship.
In the championship they have been moving nicely.
Lester Ryan is their powerful leader, and behind him the charge is led by the Langtons, Tom Ryan and the Prendergasts’. All up front - Keith Hogan and Liam Ryan are the main scorers - shared in the scoring in the semi. Typical! They can hurt you from anywhere.
In terms of titles in the bag, Shamrocks are a rich club. Their 14 successes, including a four in-a-row between 2006 and 2009, leaves them second in the Roll of Honour behind Tullaroan.
Shamrocks won the intermediate championship in 1974, the year after they took junior honours. They put their name on it again in 1997. Their run of success since is enviable.
The addition of Andy Moloney and Colm Bonnar to the backroom team this year has injected new enthusiasm into things. They have helped reshaped the team, and the starting lineout in the semi-final is the best of Shamrocks 2014.
Michael Fennelly and Joey Holden have been slotted into new roles at centre and full back respectively. Veteran Bob Aylward, a long server at wing back, has been moving nicely at midfield. Richie Reid, apart from a slight blip against Danesfort, has been sure and steady in goal.
The Shamrocks attack has been attracting most attention. That is understandable. Where would you get an attack with five senior All-Ireland medal winners in it?
The odd man out up front is Brian Cody, a young lad who has been playing very well. Surrounded by such elegant company, his game has blossomed. Eoin Reid is hurling better than he has been for years, and that has driven things on nicely too.
Shamrocks finished as runners-up in their division of the League, and ended up winning the Shield final against Dicksboro. In the championship they had Danesfort beaten within 10 minutes of the start, but they found tactically astute St Martin’s (Muckalee) more difficult to crack in the semi-final.
The Shamrocks slowly wore down the opposition, who suffered when they had a man sent off during the third quarter. An attack with T.J. Reid, Colin Fennelly, Henry Shefflin and James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick in it is capable of causing a lot of damage, to anyone.
The question is, can Clara hold this slick Shamrocks attack?
The Shamrocks defence is decent. The balance of Clara’s is better. The Clara attack is good. Yet, the Shamrocks forwards are capable of running up a bigger score.
Discipline will be vital. If silly chances are handed to Clara’s smashing free taker, Keith Hogan, from any range, he will be the decider, as he has been on many a day.
No more than the All-Ireland final between Kilkenny and Tipperary, this is difficult to call. Clara have definitely improved as a group since last year, but the loss of Phelan could hurt them.
On the basis there is more in Shamrocks than we saw in the semi-final, we give them the nod.
Paths to the final
First round, Clara 1-20, James Stephens 0-18
Quarter-finals, Clara 2-14, O’Loughlin Gaels 2-12
Ballyhale Shamrocks 5-23, Danesfort 2-13
Semi-finals, Ballyhale Shamrocks 1-19, St Martin’s 0-14.
Clara selectors - Mick Purcell (manager), Tom Mullally, Nicky Cashin, Paddy Mullally.
Ballyhale Shamrocks selectors - Andy Moloney (manager), Colm Bonnar (trainer), John Drennan, Patrick O’Sullivan, Tommy Phelan.