THE scare Kilkenny and Leinster champions, St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) received in the semi-final could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Saturday’s All-Ireland club junior hurling final in Croke Park.
The Cats face Cork’s finest, Charleville, a team not unlike themselves in that they are a young and fast side who won the under-21 and junior double in their home county last season.
St Pat’s will be hoping to succeed where John Lockes (Callan), Dicksboro and O’Loughlin Gaels all failed last season, and win an All-Ireland club final for Kilkenny.
“St Patrick’s are ready,” insisted team manager, Maurice Aylward, who has sampled All-Ireland club success with Ballyhale Shamrocks in the past. “If they produce their best it will take a good team to beat them.”
And Charleville are a good team. They have matured since winning the county title, and after a couple of real tests in Munster, they eased into the final by scoring a handy 1-17 to 0-6 win over Fullen Gaels (England) in the All-Ireland semi-final.
They have a bunch of class players, including Conor Fitzgerald, Barry McCarthy, Colm O’Flynn, team captain Daniel O’Flynn, Andrew Cagney, Alan O’Connor and star attacker, James O’Brien, the Cork young hurler of the year who collected a couple of ‘man of the match’ awards last season.
Expect this to be a fast flowing, possibly high scoring match, because of both teams liking is for an open, running game.
In contrast to their opponents, St Patrick’s enjoyed an easy run through Leinster, and in their one real test, against Ballygar (Galway) in the All-Ireland semi-final, they ran hot and cold. They lost control after a commanding opening half and they were hanging on for dear life at the finish.
“The reaction of the players after the semi-final was very good,” insisted Maurice Aylward when we spoke about that match in Nenagh, on a heavy pitch that didn’t suit St Pat’s style of play.
“For our own good in the long run it was as good a going over as we could have asked for,” he added. “You would like to be seven or eight points’ clear going into the closing stages and finishing out the game strongly.
“Instead we got a bit of a scare. It was tight and we were forced to dig deep to get through. That was something we badly needed in this championship. We needed a good test badly. That is what we got.
“Maybe Ballygar were a bit better than we thought. I would prefer to be in the position we are in going into the All-Ireland final than Charleville, who has an easy enough semi-final. That’s not always the best preparation before a final.
“I could see when we resumed training after the semi-final that the players weren’t happy. They were ready to listen, to find out why they hadn’t performed well against Ballygar, and what they needed to do to be better the next day. From that point of view the scare was a terrific benefit to us.”
Game flowing again
St Patrick’s played one challenge match since. It went perfectly. The players got their game flowing freely again. Defects pointed out to them after the Ballygar effort were put right.
“They performed very well, carrying out our instructions perfectly,” was the summary from the manger. “Sometimes when you are going too well you are not inclined to examine things enough, a sort of it isn’t broke then why try and fix it thinking. The semi-final performance made us have a thorough examination of ourselves and we are all the better for that.
“Ballygar rattled us a bit. We went back and looked at things. The players know now what they must do to get the best out of themselves.”
St Patrick’s have a couple of lingering injuries but they hope most hands will be on deck in Croker. This is their big day. The 60 minutes in Croke Park will define the whole 2011/12 club season for them.
“If we can win it would be the icing on the cake,” Mr Aylward insisted. “It is the dream of every player to play in Croke Park. St Patrick’s are no different. All the players are looking forward to the final.
“They can’t wait to get out and show their wares on the famous turf. This is a big day for the club, the parish and everyone everywhere who is from Ballyragget.”
Players like commanding full-back Jeff Morrissey, the free scoring Kevin Kelly, Joe Brennan, Brian ‘Brooky’ Phelan, Geoff Brennan, Michael Brennan, Bill Staunton and so on have the ability and class to light up Croke Park.
“There can be a huge difference between winning and losing an All-Ireland final in terms of your future progress,” Mr Aylward said when he looked down the road to next year’s intermediate championship in Kilkenny. “If you win you can expand and develop. To go to Croke Park and win an All-Ireland can be the makings of a player in terms of confidence, self belief and so on.
“There is nothing to be afraid of. There is no fear in our camp. Five or six of the players have played in Croke Park with Kilkenny. That is a third of our team has played in Croke Park. That is no bad thing. That can be a huge help.
Make best of things
“You get a few days in your career, and you have to make the best of them. What are the chances of any club at junior level getting back into this final in Croke Park? This could be St Patrick’s only chance to get to Croke Park as a junior team.
“A senior club could get more than one chance at it, but for a junior club it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is it. Everything up to this was a dress rehearsal for Saturday.
“I am very happy with the way things have gone since the semi-final. A club All-Ireland is a huge day for any club. You are playing the game with you brother, you next door neighbour, the lads you started hurling with. That is a very unusual group to go to Croke Park together.
“These players don’t think they deserve anything simply because they have put so much effort and work into the game,” he continued. “They know hard work and effort got them this far. It will take a lot of hard work and effort to get them over the line as winners. They are ready for the effort.”
St Partrick’s – Michael Gannon, John Mooney, Jeff Morrissey, Steve Staunton, Kieran Delaney (capt), Geoff Brennan, Stephen Roberts, Brian ‘Brooky’ Phelan, James Gannon, Jody Phelan, Seoirse Kenny, Kevin Kelly, Michael Brennan, Bill Staunton, Joe Brennan, Liam Lacy, Brendan Dooley, Conor Delaney, Eoin Bergin, James Morrissey, Robbie Healy, Alan Ruth, Sean Mooney, Conor Foley, John Holland, Paddy Cahill, Brian ‘Tom’ Phelan, Paddy McEvoy, Mark Staunton, Conor Bolger, J.J. Sullivan, Enda Mooney, Donal Brennan, Dermot Brophy, Brian Mulhall.
Charleville – Sean O’Connor, Michel O’Flynn, Conor Fitzgerald, Alan Dennehy, Barry McCarthy, Colm O’Flynn, Brendan Dennehy, Daniel O’Flynn (capt), James Casey, Derry Murphy, Alan O’Connor, Mervyn Gammell, Andrew Cagney, Mark Kavanagh, James O’Brien, Gavin Kelleher, Fergus O’Callaghan, Denis O’Sullivan, Brendan Casey, James Foley, P.J. O’Halloran.