FORM has been running true on the Kilkenny club scene this season.
Last weekend the two teams who contested the intermediate hurling championship final had earlier clashed in the league decider. Danesfort won the title, having lost to the Rower-Inistioge in the earlier showdown.
James Stephens will be hoping things follow the same consistent line when they take on hot favourites, Ballyhale Shamrocks in the senior championship final at Nowlan Park on Sunday.
When these teams clashed in the league final earlier in the season the Shamrocks, minus a still recovering Henry Shefflin, took the honours.
Current form suggests another Shamrocks victory, but of all the teams the Southerners might ever want to face, James Stephens would be low down in terms of preference.
You see, The Village don’t fear Shamrocks, and vice-versa. For that reason, there might be a lot more to this showdown than many people might want to believe.
And here’s one. James Stephens will have to score more than 2-18 if they want to land what would be their ninth title.
You see 2-18 is the score Shamrocks have returned in two of their three championship engagements to date. In the other one, the drawn quarter-final against Carrickshock, they ran up 2-17.
Shooting such a score wouldn’t be beyond the possibilities for ’Stephens, especially with attack leader, Eoin Larkin, in utterly determined mood at the moment.
The play anywhere Kilkenny forward has been so forceful in his play, so determined, so good at bringing others into the action that he is capable of making just about everything and anything possible.
The earlier league final, to be honest, wasn’t any sort of guide to what might happen on Sunday. Both teams are in a very different place now, especially Shamrocks after a tough championship that saw them draw with last year’s losing finalists, Carrickshock before beating them in a replay, and then downing defending champions, O’Loughlin Gaels.
Those gruelling back-to-back games just couldn’t have been tougher. They helped sharpen the Shamrocks, got them into a strong rhythm, and right now they are a mean hurling machine, one with absolute focus on winning the title.
“From Day I getting to the final was our goal,” admitted Shamrocks manager, Michael Fennelly. “No championship final is ever easily won. This one is going to be very, very hard to win.”
Shamrocks are driven. They still carry some hurt from the fact they failed to make the final last season when Henry Shefflin was out with a cruciate ligament injury.
Shefflin didn’t return until Saturday, May 7 this year, but his form has been getting better and better. To be honest, I think he is a bit fitter, a bit stronger and a bit faster than he was in the All-Ireland final against Tipperary.
The more games he gets, the more work he gets into the bank, the better. Next year I would expect he will be even better than he is now – fingers crossed, all going well – because he will be able to have a full programme of Winter and Spring work behind him.
Anyway, Shamrocks were without Shefflin in the league final, while ’Stephens were minus handy attacker, Matt Ruth and ever dependable and vastly experienced defenders, Tomas Kehoe and Donnacha Cody.
The city side felt the loss, and badly. They were 1-7 to 0-2 down at the break, and that could have been so much worse. Goalie Derrick Brennan brought off three top class saves during that half to keep the match alive.
Shamrocks won eventually by 2-13 to 1-10, with a flying T.J. Reid landing 1-5, and his brother Eoin four points. David Walton (1-6) was ’Stephens main man.
Tough and demanding
While Shamrocks have benefitted from the tough and demanding championship road they had to follow, a less strenuous route suited ’Stephens and helped them stack neatly the building blocks of their team one on top of the other. Much more than Shamrocks, their team is a work in progress, a building project for new manager, Niall Rigney.
They are in the county final, so now is the time for this team to make its mark. The players can forget the assumption that next year or the year after they might be better. A team is never too young, or too old, to win.
Eoin Larkin and Jackie Tyrrell, who were incredible - and I mean that, incredible - in the semi-final against St Martin’s (Ballyfoyle/Coon/Muckalee) are capable of inspiring another winning effort. However, this time it will be more difficult because Shamrocks will tie down this pair.
In the league final I was amused by Colin Fennelly’s attitude when facing Tyrrell, who had just come off a super All-Ireland showing against Lar Corbett. Fennelly didn’t appear to care. He attacked Tyrrell head-on at every opportunity.
It was an interesting display of defiance. That’s the Shamrocks for you. They believe in themselves individually, and collectively. And while the ‘old guard’ like Aidan Cummins, Eamon Walsh, Bob Aylward - people have been suggesting the defence hasn’t been as good as before, but I don’t see that - and Henry (Shefflin), of course, have been doing the business, the huge improvement shown by young guns like Joseph Holden, Ger Fennelly and Conor Walsh since the championship commenced has been a huge bonus for the team.
On top of all that team captain, Michael Fennelly and James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick are as good a midfield partnership as is in the country. Shamrocks have talent in abundance everywhere. That is what should give them the edge in the final.
’Stephens need stronger, more sustained support for Tyrrell and Larkin than has been witnessed to date, even in the semi-final. With that they have a chance. Without it the bookies odds will be confirmed.
Ballyhale Shamrocks - Richard Reid, Paul Shefflin, Aidan Cummins, Ger Fennelly, Joseph Holden, Eamon Walsh, Bob Aylward, James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick, Michael Fennelly (capt), Colin Fennelly, Henry Shefflin, T.J. Reid, Mary Aylward, Eoin Reid, Patrick Reid, Eoin Knox, David Hoyne, Tom Coogan, Michael Dermody, Keith Nolan, Kieran Grace, Conor Walsh, Liam Grant, Enda Fitzpatrick, Alan Cuddihy, James Walsh, Donnchadh Fitzpatrick, Gavin Butler, Richard Deasy, Sean Malone, Ger Holden.
Selectors - Michael Fennelly (senior), James McGarry, Brendan Mason.
James Stephens - Derrick Brennan, Tomas Keogh, Philip Larkin, John Comerford, Eamon Sheehy, Jackie Tyrrell (capt), Donnacha Cody, Niall McQuillan, Niall Tyrrell, David McCormack, Gary Whelan, Matt Ruth, Jack McGrath, Eoin Larkin, David Walton, Francis Cantwell, Patrick Butler, Shane Campion, Conor McQuillan, Richie Hayes, Eoin McCormack, David Hennessy, Luke Hickey, Tomas O’Dowd, Keith Mulcahy, Keith Ryan, Ben Lahart, Patrick Duggan, Ray Coady.
Selectors - Niall Rigney (manager), Adrian Finan, Fran Whelan.