Senior ranks beckon - but for whom?

A CHANCE to make a quick return to the top flight, or the opportunity to jump up two grades in successive seasons. That’s the end result for Clara and St Patrick’s, who will do battle in the intermediate hurling final this weekend.

A CHANCE to make a quick return to the top flight, or the opportunity to jump up two grades in successive seasons. That’s the end result for Clara and St Patrick’s, who will do battle in the intermediate hurling final this weekend.

After a season of twists and turns - not to mention replays - the two maroon-clad teams are now just a game away from joining the elite ranks of Kilkenny hurling.

Much like the senior championship, the intermediate competition has been run off over a frenetic five-week period. The big difference, however, is that one game of every round in the grade has needed a replay to determine a winner.

For Clara Sunday’s game (throw-in 2pm) presents the chance to quickly end their exile from the top flight. Since winning the intermediate championship in 2007, when they beat St Lachtain’s in the final, the Clara men enjoyed four years in the senior grade but dropped down when they lost the relegation final to Tullaroan by a point (0-15 to 0-14) in 2011.

Now under the care of Robert Shortall, the team’s sole ambition this year has been to regain their senior status. They have a chance to make it a double this weekend, having beaten St Lachtain’s (Freshford) by six points in the league final. They repeated that feat a fortnight ago albeit by a bigger margin, scoring a 12-point win over the Freshford men in the championship semi-final.

That win marked the return to action of Keith Hogan, the club’s free-taker and danger man in the forward ranks. Although Hogan missed the quarter-final and replay against Glenmore, Clara had an able replacement in midfielder Lester Ryan, who stepped up to the mantle. Ryan scored six points first time around against the South Kilkenny side and then hit 1-5 in the replay, the last two points helping to swing the tie Clara’s way when the game was in the melting pot.

Clara had no such problems in the semi-final, powering their way past an injury-hit Lachtain’s side. Although they trailed by a point at half-time in that game Clara took control of the scoreboard in the second half, outscoring their rivals by 1-12 to 0-3 a run that was started by Liam Ryan’s goal.

The Ryans, Lester and Liam, and Keith Hogan haven’t been the only ones to impress for Clara, who also have sterling workers in defence. Neal Prendergast and Sean O’Shea have helped in this regard at the back, coping well with the threats posed along the route to the final.

While St Patrick’s have also tasted life at the top table of Kilkenny hurling, only a handful of the current panel will remember it. Relegated from the senior ranks in 1985, they dropped down from the intermediate grade in 1987 and were a junior side almost 25 years.

Their luck changed in 2011, when the side captured the Kilkenny junior title. With manager Maurice Aylward working the oracle they added the Leinster title in November of last year, beating Laois outfit Ballyfin before landing the big one, the All-Ireland title, courtesy of a one-point win over Charleville of Cork in February.

Seen by many as an outside chance for intermediate honours this year St Patrick’s - who won the Hanrahan Cup for the first and, so far, only time in 1979 - won a lot of support from neutrals with their strong attacking play. While their league form ended in a disappointing final loss to the Rower-Inistioge they got their revenge in the championship. Although they drew first time round, Patrick’s fared better in the semi-final replay last Sunday, plundering a goal at a vital stage through Michael Brennan before Michael Gannon saved a penalty to help his side on their way to a 2-11 to 0-14 win.

Like Clara, St Patrick’s are blessed with some top young performers. Kevin Kenny, who scored 1-8 in their 12-point quarter-final win over Mooncoin, and Joe Brennan have played vital roles this term - Pat’s will be hoping that Brennan (who, like his opponent Lester Ryan, has blossomed since being called into the Kilkenny senior panel) will be back to full fitness for Sunday’s game after missing last week’s replay through injury. They are not the only big performers, however, with hurlers like Geoff Brennan and Geoff Morrissey also impressing throughout.

Whichever side prevails in Sunday’s final, they won’t have long to rest on their laurels. The winner will be in Leinster championship action just seven days later, travelling to the capital to take on Dublin senior B champions St Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh in the provincial quarter-final in Blakestown.

Paths to the final

Quarter-finals: St Patrick’s 1-17, Mooncoin 1-5. Clara 1-10, Glenmore 0-13. Replay: Clara 2-14, Glenmore 1-13.

Semi-finals: Clara 2-22, St Lachtain’s 1-13. St Patrick’s 0-16, Rower-Inistioge 0-16. Replay: St Patrick’s 2-11, Rower-Inistioge 0-14.

Championship scorers

Clara - Liam Ryan (2-8); Lester Ryan (1-11); Keith Hogan (0-8); Ciaran Prendergast (2-1); Chris Bolger, Austin Murphy (0-5 each); James Nolan (0-3); Jack Langton, Conor Phelan (0-2 each); Brian O’Shea (0-1).

St Patrick’s - Kevin Kelly (1-25); Michael Brennan (1-5); Conor Delaney, Geoffrey Brennan (0-4 each); Barry Staunton (1-0); Kieran Delaney, Eoghan Bergin, Bill Staunton (0-2 each).