Seniors ranks beckon, but who will answer the call on Sunday?

Sean Grace boots the sliotar clear despite pressure from Ballyragget duo Brian Phelan and Geoffrey Brennan in the IHC semi-final. Grace had a solid game at midfield for the Rower. Photo: Eoin Hennessy
Sixty minutes is all that separates the last men standing from earning a place at the top table of Kilkenny hurling for 2014.

Sixty minutes is all that separates the last men standing from earning a place at the top table of Kilkenny hurling for 2014.

For the Rower-Inistioge, Sunday’s intermediate hurling final (throw-in at Nowlan Park is at 3.30pm) will provide the chance to end a 23-year exile from the top flight. For the Emeralds (Urlingford), it’s the opportunity to break new ground.

The first team into the final, Rower manager Ger Morrissey hailed his side’s fighting spirit.

“There has been a new tenacity to the team this year - lads felt they owed it to themselves after losing the 2011 final and getting beaten in the semi-finals last year,” he said. “They have been together for a number of years. The team has always been there or thereabouts, but it’s just about pushing on over the line.

“Now, we’re an hour away from achieving that goal,” he added. “That’s the challenge for Sunday.”

One of the pre-championship favourites, there has been pressure on the Rower to perform. However, they haven’t let it get in the way.

“For us it’s a motivation,” Morrissey said of the expectancy on his side. “These lads have been here and had heartache so they know what it’s all about.

“However we’re nowhere near the promised land,” he cautioned. “Emeralds have shown in the last while that they can’t be written off. We had a good win over them in the league but that doesn’t count for anything.”

Performances throughout the year have given the Rower the belief that this could be the season they finally get back into the senior grade. Holders of one senior title (they beat Bennettsbridge in the 1968 decider) they beat the drop in 1985, beating St Patrick’s by 1-12 to 1-7. However, they were relegated from the top rank in 1988, losing to Graigue-Ballycallan, and haven’t been back since.

The expectation to get back to the top level has been there, but Morrissey reckons this year’s side may have learned how to deal with the pressure.

“You have to go back to the league game against St Lachtain’s in Gowran,” he recalled. “We were under the cosh in the first half and for all our efforts things didn’t seem to be going our way. At half-time we came in and spoke a few truths - they went out in the second half and did the business. We’ve learned to deal with pressure when it’s come on - hopefully we have! - which was reflected in our form throughout the league.

“We also had a great test against Thomastown in the championship quarter-final,” he added. “They woke us up to the fact that you have to stay at the game for 60 minutes and not let things flag. We lost our way a little, leaking three goals, but we still managed to get back up the field and win.

“We have that ability,” Morrissey said. “We are the sum of our experiences and we have the belief that we can go one step further this year.”

That belief and confidence isn’t just limited to one team. The Emeralds are also convinced that this could be their year.

“The players have shown real character this year,” said club chairman Jimmy Tone. “We were overjoyed with our semi-final win. We were delighted with the way the players have reacted to challenges of the championship.

“While a lot of people might have been surprised by the quarter-final win over St Lachtain’s, the Emeralds weren’t,” the chairman added. “They knew there was talent in the squad. It was all a matter of getting the players to perform on any given day.”

While it is a team game the chairman acknowledged that the leadership provided by Derek Lyng and Aidan Fogarty has been super.

“They are some ambassadors for our club,” he said of the duo, both of whom were driving forces during the county side’s march to four All-Ireland titles in a row between 2006 and 2009. “We are so proud of them. Their families are the same. We couldn’t say enough good things about those people.

“They are the heartbeat of our team,” he added. “Derek has suffered fiercely through injury but he continues to drive himself on to help the club. The pair of them are super leaders - the young lads couldn’t have better role models.”

It’s more than a decade (2001) since the Emeralds came up from the junior ranks. Making their first intermediate final has been challenging, but the players have responded well at every step.

“The final against the Rower-Inistioge is a huge, huge challenge for us,” said Tone. “All this is new to our club. We played the Rower already this year and they beat us well. We have a mountain to climb, but we had one to climb at the start of the championship and look where we are now.

“On the day if you got a bit of luck here and there you would never know what might happen,” he said. “We are in the final and that gives us a chance of winning it. It could all come down to attitude, and maybe a bit of luck.”

New name on trophy

Whichever side wins Sunday’s final one thing is for sure - there will be a new name on the trophy.

While Urlingford have won the title before, capturing it in 1929 the Emeralds, as a team, haven’t.

Emeralds never reached intermediate final before. The Rower have had only one other appearance, the game they lost to Danesfort 2-11 to 0-11 in 2011.

That’s not to say that success at this level has eluded the teams. The Rower have won two intermediate hurling league titles (2009 and 2011), adding the Shield in 2012. The Emeralds have also tasted League success, winning the competition in 2006. They have also picked up the Shield, winning that in 2008 - when they beat the Rower.