When the teams take to Nowlan Park on Sunday for the intermediate and junior hurling finals they will look back on how success at under-21 level helped, writes Nickey Brennan.
The under-age victories have been important in preparing for bigger challenges.
All four clubs won under-21 titles during the past four years. Two were also beaten finalists.
Mooncoin (2010), St Patrick’s (2011) and Mullinavat (2013) won under-21 ‘A’ titles while Bennettsbridge won the under-21 ‘B’ title in 2013. Mullinavat and Mooncoin also lost the 2012 and 2011 county finals respectively.
Bennettsbridge might well have opted to play in the top grade last year as they were the stand-out side in the ‘B’ grade. They will be one of the fancied teams for the ‘A’ title this year.
It is almost half a century since Bennettsbridge and Mooncoin last played in an adult county final. Back in the sixties the ’Bridge and Mooncoin were two of the stand-out senior club sides.
They contested the 1965 and 1966 finals with Bennettsbridge winning the latter and Mooncoin the former.
Bennettsbridge was also victorious in the senior final against Mooncoin in 1955. The glory days of the sixties gave way to tougher times in recent years. Now the former giants face each other again to commence what they hope will be the climb back to senior ranks.
The first step is to move up to the intermediate grade. This is familiar territory to Mooncoin as they were relegated last year.
To be contesting a junior final so quickly is to the credit of the Mooncoin players. The disappointment of losing to Young Irelands (Gowran) last year after a replay would have been a big blow.
Sunday’s team will have many of the successful under-21 ‘A’ players from 2010. They will also have former Kilkenny under-age player, P.J. Rowe back in the side. Rowe was domiciled in London last year and was a big loss.
Bennettsbridge will be hoping to make it third time lucky in the final. Last year they suffered the heartache of a one point loss to Lisdowney, while the previous year they lost heavily to neighbours Thomastown.
While there is no disputing that the better sides won both finals, Bennettsbridge know that they did not perform to their potential on either day.
This places huge pressure on the current team to get into the winners enclosure. The side has an undoubted array of talent and supporters will feel it is time the club moved up to the intermediate grade.
Neither of Sunday’s finalists had easy passages through the semi-finals. In fact, it was not until the closing stages in both games that they managed to get the better of their opponents.
In many ways it was ideal preparation for Sunday.
If the junior semi-finals gave us two exciting games, the same could not be said of the intermediate semis. Neither St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) nor Mullinavat will worry about that at this stage.
The intermediate finalists are also backboned by players from successful under-21 teams. The clubs have been edging closer to the senior ranks in recent years with St Patrick’s losing to Rower-Inistioge last year.
Mullinavat were relieved to have reached this year’s final as they were behind to neighbours Tullogher Rosbercon in the 60th minute of their semi-final. It took a Jamie Fennelly goal to save the day for the Rod Iron men.
This was the second late surge that kept Mullinavat in the championship. A similar pattern emerged against Young Irelands in the quarter-final.
St Patrick’s won more comfortably against Graigue-Ballycallan. They had a few nervous moments after Eddie Brennan scored a goal for the Graigue men in the second half, but in the end they proved to be the better side.
There is not a lot between two well versed, well tuned teams. Both are better than they played in their respective semi-finals. Given a good day for both, this could be a thriller.
This time of the year the weather can have a big say in the outcome of games. Nevertheless, whatever the elements I take Bennettsbridge and St Patrick’s to be celebrating come Sunday evening. There won’t be much in it!