Being in a county final is a great opportunity for a club, and that is certainly the case for both Clara and Carrickshock this week.
They are not only in the county senior hurling final, they are in a final either can win! There is no great advantage or disadvantage for Carrickshock. Ditto Clara!
This is as open a senior decider as has been staged in Nowlan Park for years. Fans can discuss, dissect, examine the game up and down whatever they like, but they will end up heading to the game on Sunday knowing the result could go one way or the other.
Carrickshock, a huge club name in Kilkenny hurling, will be attempting to bridge a significant gap. They haven’t won the Walsh Cup since 1951. They beat Tullaroan that day (5-6 to 4-5).
Carrickshock weren’t a senior club constantly after after that. They dropped to the intermediate grade and returned to the top flight as champions in 2003 when they beat Erin’s Own (Castlecomer) in the county final.
They haven’t had a major affair with the county final since. They lost one final - 2010 against O’Loughlin Gaels, 0-17 to 1-11 - and that left them with serious regreats, not just because they were beaten, but more especially because they felt they underperformed.
Clara are a team on a serious run of victories. Last season they won the Kilkenny intermediate double, league and championship. They followed that with successes in the Leinster and All-Ireland club championships.
And this season they picked up where they left off by winning the senior hurling league. On Sunday they will be chasing the second leg of what would be a magnificent double, or, with all the figures added up, their 6th title on the trot!
Now that is some going. If Ballyhale Shamrocks, James Stephens or one of the other bigger name clubs were piling up the honours like that were would be singing their praises from the high heavens.
Yet Clara have eased quietly into the final. There was a seamless transition from last season’s management team headed by Robert Shortall to the current one of Michael Purcell (manager), Tom Mullally (trainer) and selector Tom Murphy.
Clara’s one and only senior championship win was in 1986 when they beat Shamrocks by 3-10 to 4-5 in the final. They lost the final of 1990 against Glenmore.
Carrickshock’s seven championship wins were squeezed between 1931 and 1951. The last one was so long ago there is no real relevance to today’s happenings.
Manager Maurice Power, Liam Cahill (coach) and selectors Jimmy O’Shea and Jimmy Sheehan went into over-drive the moment the last whistle sounded in the semi-final win over Ballyhale Shamrocks. If the ’Shock are to lose this time it won’t be because of under performance, over confidence or loss of sight of the goal.
“Getting to a county final is not to be celebrated,” was the clear message. It was nice that it was their first championship win over Shamrocks since they returned to the senior division. That was an interesting fact that day, but it couldn’t dim the focus on Clara and county final day.
Carrickshock’s team has taken shape nicely, slowly during the season. The balance just wasn’t right when they opened in the league by losing against James Stephens. When John Tennyson - what a warrior to get through the pain of the shoulder injury he carried into the semi-final - was ready to take over at centre-back the various lines began to knit neatly together. Since he packed in the inter-county game his best form has begun to re-emerge.
Along the way some of their lesser lights in attack found a new level to their game. We all know Richie Power can play, and Jamie Power can do all sorts of jobs in attack and midfield. Michel Rohan hurled mightily in the last two matches, scoring1-3 in the semi. Brian Donovan’s priceless day was against Graigue-Ballycallan on an August evening in Bennettsbridge when he bagged 2-4 from play.
And young John Power, he of the frightening pace and golden touch, has grown into a man hurler during this campaign.
The development of these guys has been as vital, if not more so, to the progress as has the sure and steady form of the experienced John Dalton, David Franks, Pat Tennyson and others.
And to crown it all, Michael Rice, whose season was wrecked by injury, returned in full bloom in the semi-final. Who said one great man can’t make a huge difference?
They look to have timed their run perfectly!
Clara have been easing along nicely all season, running up scores that thrilled and suprised in almost equal measure. Example, the 0-24 against James Stephens in the league final. No one expected that. Keith Hogan (9), Liam Ryan (6) and Lester Ryan (5) gave an exhibition of point scoring that day.
One remembered back to their last run in the senior grade, when finishing let them down and ultimately cost them.
The Clara backs have been sure - Shane Prendergast and David Langton to the point of being eyed by the senior selectors; Lester Ryan and Jack Langton have been great in midfield, and one means great, while Keith Hogan has been the main man in attack,with Liam Ryan and James Nolan potential match winners on any day.
This final grabs the imagination and swirls the mind because of the endless possibilities. Carrickshock could do this. Clara might do that.
It is hard to go against Clara’s confidence breeding run, but there is an unknown spirit filling the Carrickshock sails and driving them forward. We take a gamble on them getting that 8th title.