Club final day in Croke Park on March 17 is now one of the highlights of the GAA calendar. A day that was once dominated by the inter-provincial finals is now the domain of the clubs and each year we look to see if a new club is fortunate to grace the famous venue, writes Nickey Brennan.
If the excitement on March 17 is an occasion to behold for senior clubs, then just imagine what it will be like next weekend in Croke Park as the All-Ireland club intermediate and junior finals are played. The football finals will be on Saturday night, but the fixtures have been thrown into some disarray as one of the junior semi-finals (Castleknock, Dublin v Kenmare Shamrocks of Kerry) has twice ended in a draw.
From a Kilkenny perspective, Sunday is a big day with intermediate champions (Clara) and junior champions (Thomastown) in action against representatives from Britain. Both Kilkenny sides are hot favourites, but I am sure they realise that the emigration exodus to Britain in recent years means that teams from across the Irish Sea are much stronger now than they have been for years.
In the intermediate final, Clara face St Gabriel’s, the London senior hurling champions. The Saints have amassed 15 county titles in London and is a club with a strong Galway influence. It was founded fifty-two years ago in Harrow, predominantly by a group of Galway men from Cappataggle. I doubt if they ever dreamed of playing in Croke Park.
Clara may be favourites, but they would do well to think back to 2007 when another London club, Robert Emmets, won the intermediate All-Ireland. St Gabriel’s scored an extra time victory (2-12 to 2-11) over the Galway representatives Killimordaly. This was the same Galway club which lost the final to Robert Emmets in 2007.
Clara had to play at the top of its game to defeat Silvermines, Tipperary, in their semi-final. This is a fine Clara side which will relish the open spaces in Croke Park, but attitude will be important.
The London champions will have Kilkenny players, P.J. Rowe (Mooncoin) and Niall Cody (Graignamanagh) bolstering its defence, but it is difficult to see anything other than a Clara victory.
Thomastown will be even hotter favourites in the junior final against Fullen Gaels from Manchester. Fullen Gaels also has a strong Kilkenny
connection with Patrick Duggan and James Farrell (both Carrickshock) lining out. Another player to watch out for in the Fullen Gael side is Robbie Power from Clonea in Waterford.
Thomastown reached the final in a canter with a string of highly impressive performances. Due to a red card received in the semi-final goalie Dylan Walsh must watch the game from the dugout, so it will mean a first start for young Darragh McGarry (son of James) in the final.
For many reasons this will be a hugely emotional day for James and Darragh – a first start and it’s an All-Ireland final!
Fullen Gales will bring lots of honest endeavour and commitment to Croke Park, but they will come up against a really talented side that will simply have too much skill and panache for them.