DEFENDING All-Ireland and current Leinster league and championship kingpins, St Kieran’s College are chasing their best game as they prepare to face the form team of the moment, Ardscoil Ris (Limerick) in what promises to be a rip-roaring All-Ireland colleges senior hurling (Roinn A) final in Thurles on Saturday.
The Kilkenny school are the biggest winners of the Croke Cup with 17 successes to their name, but it will be something akin to pulling a tiger by the tail when they take on Ardscoil in a repeat of last year’s decider.
The Shannonsiders have been in red hot form in Munster, having averaged 2-15 in their four games. In the provincial final they walloped totally out-classed Charleville CBS by 3-19 to 0-3.
In their most recent game, the All-Ireland semi-final against Castlecomer Community School, Ardscoil clocked up 2-16 when dishing out a 16 point beating.
Head turning form, on top of a desire to get revenge on the team that beat them in last year’s final, has turned this into something bordering on a season of atonement for the Limerick side, who are chasing their first All-Ireland win.
Ardscoil looked on course for victory in last year’s final when they led by 2-8 to 1-6 turning into the closing stages. However, a goal from Michael Brennan breathed new life in the Noresiders challenge.
A point from defender, William Phelan was followed by another from Kilkenny captain of last season, Cillian Buckley to level things at 2-8 each as suddenly the tide turned swiftly and firmly in Kieran’s favour.
The Kilkenny lads powered on. They eventually won a game they looked like losing for long spells by 2-11 to 2-8. The Shannonsiders were shocked by the dramatic turn in fortunes, but they regrouped brilliantly this season and they are the favourites as they head into this decider.
While that defeat may be long gone, it has not been forgotten. It has been a powerful motivating force for the Limerick lads, who apparently had a sticker on the wall of their dressing-room in the semi-final reminding them about the pain of that day in Thurles.
Ardscoil return to the scene of that disappointment determined in the extreme to make sure nothing like that happens again. In the Munster final they had 10 of the starting side from last year’s All-Ireland in action; six of the team were Limerick minors last year while Declan Hannon and Shane Dowling were also part of the Limerick under-21 set-up.
On top of that, Jamie Shanahan played with Clare in the 2010 All-Ireland minor hurling final against Kilkenny.
“The way things went in last year’s final is certainly an incentive for Ardscoil,” suggested Kieran’s joint manager, Tom Hogan, who shares the team handling duties with Philip Walsh and trainer, Ken Archibold. “The impression we are getting is that they feel they left it behind them last year.
“From our point of view we essentially have a different team, while we have a good number of the same players involved. I don’t think last year’s final will have much bearing on things as far as we are concerned.
“But for Ardscoil this is like a year of atonement, of making up for what happened in the final last year. Our players know that. They know they are facing a backlash against a very driven and talented team.”
Kieran’s fielded a variety of varying selections during the Leinster League as they rested injured players and sifted through the talent in the process of building for the championship. Cillian Buckley, who has been troubled by a groin injury for months, was rested.
Last year’s full-back and Kilkenny minor panellist, Robert Lannon, who had surgery during the Winter to repair a damaged ankle and is still battling to regain full fitness, didn’t feature at all.
Since Kieran’s turned into the championship they have been chasing their best form, although they saw off Dublin South, Good Counsel (Wexford), Castlecomer CS in the provincial final and Charleville CBS in the All-Ireland semi-final (3-10 to 0-7).
In the latter match, despite the big score, the impression was that there was more in Kieran’s, even if the team effort didn’t knit together just right.
“The reality is that we know we have to improve a lot,” was the straight forward summary from Mr Hogan. “Had we played very well in the semi-final it might have been hard to get lads down and then back up again for the final. We are being realistic. The players know they must improve.”
The encouraging thing according to Mr Hogan was that they were moving in the right direction. Management and the players spoke about the most recent performance. The players didn’t need telling that they will have to do better.
“We have some very good lads who are real leaders,” Mr Hogan suggested. “They know exactly the efforts it takes to win. They know the performances we have been putting in would not be good enough to win the All-Ireland.”
Players like William Phelan, Pat O’Carroll, John Power, Buckley, Thomas O’Hanrahan, Michael Brennan et al are hugely talented. On their best day they could produce greatness to down any side.
Need to up work-rate
“Part of the problem is that our work-rate hasn’t been good enough,” Mr Hogan felt. “It would help things if we improve our work-rate. We would certainly give ourselves a much better chance.”
He said Thurles was a big, wide open pitch. You put in the work on it or you had better be prepared to pay a serious price.
The teams faced each other in a challenge early in the New Year. Both sides were shortly. There wasn’t much in it. There was an element of shadow boxing that day with both concentrating on the respective provincial championships.
Certainly the best of the likes of defenders Declan Hannon, Alan Dempsey, Martin Moroney, midfielders Mark Ryan and Jamie Shanahan, and forwards Shane Dowling, Oisin Hickey, Kevin O’Brien and John Fitzgibbon was hidden by the Shannonsiders.
No one wanted to give too much away was the assessment all round.
“We know Ardscoil are all out to win, as we are,” Mr Hogan said. “Their form in Munster has been excellent. They beat Charleville by 25 points. We beat Charleville by 12 in the semi-final. They beat Castlecomer by 16 and we beat them by a lot less.
“We know we have the potential to produce more, especially in attack,” he continued. “On any given day we could have four of last year’s Kilkenny minor winning All-Ireland team in action.
“On paper we should be more dangerous than we are, but we just haven’t clicked. We need to click. Now is the time.”
As we went to press, four of the St Kieran’s players were nursing injuries, but all were expected to be fit for the game.
St Kieran’s have 34 players on their panel. Twenty-one or 22 of them will be finished playing hurling with Kieran’s on Saturday.
Will they sign off with regrets or with a celebration?
“If we are to be beaten it won’t be for lack of effort, it will be by a better team, plain and simple,” was the way Mr Hogan signed off.