Many clubs dream of county championship success, but thanks to the GAA club championships they can now also dream of All-Ireland glory. Kilkenny clubs have enjoyed wonderful occasions in Croke Park since the start of the club championships.
On Saturday evening another Kilkenny club sets out for Jones Road hoping to capture the All-Ireland junior club hurling title.
St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) started out this time last year as a team on a mission. A defeat to Barrow Rangers in the 2010 Northern final was a big setback and some rethinking was required if this team of talented hurlers was to capture the Kilkenny crown.
The first decision was the appointment of a new coach. They don’t come any more experienced than Maurice Aylward. The Ballyhale Shamrocks clubman had already reached the pinnacle of senior club hurling as coach with his native parish.
With such an impressive CV, Aylward was the perfect fit for Ballyragget and so far the championship campaign has gone very much to plan. Now comes the biggest hurdle of all and it is taking place in the biggest arena in the country. It’s the spot where boyhood dreams are fulfilled.
Lived up to billing
It is three months since the conclusion of the Kilkenny championship, but from an early stage Ballyragget were living up to their billing as hot favourites. Victory was assured in all games, bar the county final, long before the final whistle.
In the county final Ballyragget looked the better side for long periods, but lost its way somewhat in the closing 10 minutes. Had Piltown punished a series of unforced errors, a big upset could have resulted.
The Leinster championship campaign was expected to be a stroll for the Kilkenny champions, and so it turned out. A 10 point victory over the Laois champions, Ballyfin, brought the Leinster title to the club.
That victory was impressive, but Ballyragget did allow their opponents take a grip on the game for a period in the second half. The failure to raise a green flag was a noted feature of the Leinster final.
Towards the end of January, Ballyragget headed to Nenagh and an All-Ireland semi-final with Galway’s Ballygar. I forecasted an easy win for the Kilkenny champions. All appeared to be going to plan at half-time when they led by 0-11 to 0-3.
It was an all-together different story in the second half as the Galway and Connacht representatives found a previously unseen rhythm to make for a nervy conclusion for Ballyragget. Indeed, Ballygar could well have snatched more than a single goal.
It may not have been the most impressive display from the Kilkenny men, but it was the ideal preparation for Saturday’s final.
A number of factors did not help Ballyragget in Nenagh. The heavy underfoot conditions did not suit their fleet-footed players with the sliotar getting stuck in the sticky surface on a regular basis.
The absence of key defenders Geoff Morrissey and team captain Kieran Delaney left the Ballyragget defence without two important players. With the game getting decidedly close, Ballyragget were forced to introduce Morrissey in the closing stages.
Far from ideal
It was far from an ideal situation as Morrissey was still nursing an injury, but his presence helped to calm a rearguard which was coming under incessant pressure.
It is fair to assume that Ballyragget will meet their strongest opponents in many years on Saturday. Any Cork side that reaches an All-Ireland final must be respected, as numerous Kilkenny teams have discovered over the years.
Like Ballyragget, Charleville have impressed over the past 12 months. This team would have experienced tougher campaigns in Cork and Munster than its opponents, but that was in 2011.
Charleville had an easier path to the final and scored a facile win over Fullen Gales from England in the All-Ireland semi-final. Like their opponents, Charleville have a number of young and fleet-footed players who will also relish playing in Croker.
Ballyragget head to Croke Park with a distinct advantage. A number of their players are well used to the pitch and the stadium. The importance of that experience cannot be understated.
Croke Park is an imposing venue and many players who come to play there (some perhaps for the first time) are unable to handle the hype and expectation. Players can implode easily.
If there is any concern about Ballyragget, it has been the failure to close out some of games. This team has dominated opponents for long periods, yet found itself a little anxious towards the finish on a couple of occasions.
Every player must play to his full potential on Saturday, and if this happens Ballyragget will take the trophy.
From reading match reports and hearing from people in Cork, Charleville are a side to be respected. They have many young and experienced hurlers of exceptional ability. They will travel to Croke Park with confidence and enthusiasm.
I expect Ballyragget to win because they have the better all-round side, and a number of genuinely talented hurlers. The experience which some of the players have gained from previous outings in Croke Park with Kilkenny minors will be invaluable.
Over the years Ballyragget have been great rivals of my own club, Conahy Shamrocks. In recent years the clubs have operated in different grades, but the recent intermediate league/championship draws will see that great rivalry renewed during the summer.
Ballyragget may well be our great rivals, but they are also our neighbours. We hope they enjoy Saturday evening as much as my own club did back on a glorious Saturday night in February 2008. Is Féidir Libh Ballyragget!