KILKENNY and Leinster champions, O’Loughlin-Gaels don’t have to look far for a point of reference. All they have to do is look back a month and be warned, writes John Knox.
Croke Park will be alive tomorrow (Thursday) when the AIB All-Ireland club finals, senior hurling and football, take centre stage at the famous venue. And in the small ball game the contestants, O’Loughlin-Gaels and Clarinbridge (Galway) will both be seeking their first title.
The ’Bridge were in the final in 2002 against Birr (Offaly) when current Galway boss, John McIntyre was their manager. Both finalists are fiercely driven and Croker looks set to rock to another appetising Kilkenny/Galway showdown.
“We are as ready as we have ever been for a game,” insisted O’Loughlin’s manager, Michael Nolan. “After a very long drawn out campaign it is all down to 60 minutes of hurling now. The players just can’t wait.”
Clarinbridge, twice winners of their county championship (2001 and 2010), didn’t just arrive in this club competition, they exploded into it. Their semi-final against De La Salle (Waterford) was one of the most amazing matches ever played. There were thrills and spills galore before the Connact side won by 3-22 to 1-27 after extra-time.
Talk about a scoringfest, this was without equal in the competition. O’Loughlin’s had better beware of their opponents firepower, especially deadly finishers Mark (2-5) and Alan Kerins (0-6).
“There is great excitement in the parish,” said Clarinbridge manager, Micheal Donoghue. “We hadn’t a great campaign in the group stages of the Galway championship, but then we got on a bit of a roll. Winning the county final was a massive, massive thing for us.”
Clarinbridge, a club of about 300 members, are quiet achievers, it would appear. They didn’t have one player on the Galway squad last season, yet they played like an All-Star cast when beating Loughrea in a replayed county final and then De La Salle in what was their next competitive match months later. That took a bit of doing.
“There are 20 teams in the championship and on any given day 10 or 11of them could beat any other team,” was Mr Donoghue’s assessment of the local scene. “We got on a bit of a roll, gained a bit of momentum and that carried us through.
“The players are very committed. I couldn’t ask any more of them. When we got to the county final we never looked beyond that. In the final we will concentrate on our own game, on our own performance. This is another game of hurling, even if it is an All-Ireland final.”
Clarinbridge have six survivors from 2002, which gives them a fair edge in experience. Their goalie Liam Donoghue is brother of the manager, while centre-back David Forde, Paul Coen, Barry Daly and Eoin Forde are other proven warriors.
A fair detial
As a team, O’Loughlin’s are a fair detail. Their strength in Kilkenny was the overall balance they had within the first XV. They have grown and matured since, and it is fair to say they are a much better unit now than when they won what was their third championship (2001, 2003, 2010).
They will be at full strength for the final, full-back Andy Kearns having recovered fully from a leg injury which forced him to sit out the semi-final win over Loughgiel Shamrocks (Antrim). The defence will probably revert to the usual format, with Kearns on the edge of the square and county star, Brian Hogan at centre-back.
This unit will have to keep things tight, because Clarinbridge will hurt them if they are too open. The Westerners loved the open spaces of Thurles in the semi-final and when given room, they punished De La Salle.
The Noresiders are good in midfield, where they are well served by Maurice Nolan, who is in the form of his life, and the strong running Peter Dowling. Up front the inter-changing Danny Loughnane and Martin Comerford can make big things happen on the inside line, where Brian Dowling has rolled back the years and recovered a level of bright form that evaded him for a few seasons.
Speedy centre-forward, Mark Bergin, who is no stranger to Croke Park, is the main score getting and he is flanked by the ever improving Niall McEvoy and Alan Geoghegan, who has enjoyed a very profitable campaign.
O’Loughlin’s have met and surmounted a variety of challenges; beating a good hurling and physically strong Ballyboden St Enda’s, then grinding out a win when they didn’t play that well against Oulart-the-Ballagh before slogging it out toe-to-toe with fiercely competitive Loughgiel in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Don’t know how good they are
The St John’s Park outfit probably don’t realise how good they really are. If they bring their best game to Croke Park they are good enough to be All-Ireland champions!
O’Loughlin GAels - Stephen Murphy, Brian Kelly, Andy Kearns, Eddie Kearns, Alan O’Brien, Brian Hogan, Niall Bergin, Peter Dowling, Maurice Nolan, Niall McEvoy, Mark Bergin, Alan Geoghegan, Brian Dowling, Martin Comerford (capt), Danny Loughnane, Sammy Johnston, Brian Murphy, Conor Bergin, Eoghan Grant, Sheamie Cummins, Rick Leydon, Jack Nolan, Anthony Forristal, Nigel Skehan, Bryan Skeahn, Paddy Delaney, Jason Quan, Paddy Butler, Pat Cantwell, Kevin O’Brien, Evan Walsh, Andy Cantwell, Mark Kelly.