Martin Walsh has been going well for Tullaroan this season
If neutrals had been given the choice, this would probably have been their pick.
Neighbour and great rivals, Graigue-Ballycallan and Tullaroan, or, so no one can be offended, Tullaroan and Graigue-Ballycallan in the intermediate hurling championship final.
A dream final or a game from hell? That, of course, depends on the outcome of the match at Nowlan Park on Sunday, with the winners taking all - the Hanrahan Cup, the right to represent Kilkenny in the Leinster club championship, plus a priceless scalp.
Had this been a stand alone game, it would have draw a very healthy crowd to the ’Park. As the curtain-raiser on the programme, fans could hardly have expected more.
Lest anyone gets too excited and loses sight of the real business at hand, the match, the final, it should be remembered, has the makings of a real cracker.
Verge of relegation
Graigue-Ballycallan sprung from the verge of relegation 12 months ago to just miss out on jumping up to the senior grade; beaten by a very fine St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) team in the championship final.
This season to date they contested the Shield final, which is between the runners-up in each group of the league.
Tullaroan haven’t been in the intermediate final since 1988. That was a good day. They beat Piltown to join the big boys. They dropped back down some years later, but they have built slowly and they have a nice crop of players now.
They contested the last four intermediate league finals. Alas, they lost three. Their lone success came in 2016 against Carrickshock but from the time they won through to face Bennettsbridge in 2015 this day was predicted; that they would feature in the championship showdown.
Both have been consistent in building results. Tullaroan have been beaten just once in 2018, by John Lockes (Callan) in the league final.
Graigue suffered two defeats, against Tullaroan in round three of the league and then a surprise collapse against a then struggling St Lachtain’s side.
The bookies have made their call. Tullaroan are the pick.
Their manager, Jimmy Coogan, is aware of the talk, but insists the match is very much a 50/50 situation.
“Graigue Ballycallan have the benefit of being in the final last year,” he reminded. “They have been very impressive in the championship. We know we are facing a big, big challenge.”
Tipperary man Declan Browne is in his fourth season managing Graigue-Ballycallan. He largely steered clear of the sideshow, the fierce rivalry between parish neighbours.
“There is a strong, healthy rivalry between the clubs,” he offered. “The place will be buzzing on both sides of the parish border. But you take each day and each game as it comes.
“We have a young team. We are probably a bit ahead of our time. Making two county finals possibly wasn’t on the radar a few years. It is a very, very young team against an experienced outfit. It is going to be a massive battle.
“But you have to be ready to take opportunities when they arrive. This is a one off situation. Tullaroan are favourites, and deservedly so. But we are not heading to Nowlan Park to make up the numbers.”
Neither was overly impressive in the semi-finals. The summary afterwards was probably ‘job done’, but their body of work beforehand stood up to the serious scrutiny.
Plenty of hurling
Tullaroan showed plenty of hurling and real grit when wearing down and beating a fine Thomastown outfit in the quarter-final, for example. Okay, the loss to John Lockes in the league final wasn’t expected, but if used in the right way that can be a driving force for the Walshs’ (all of them, Tommy Óg and senior, Padraig, Martin, Peter, scoring machine Shane), John Walton, Stephen Maher and the rest.
Sometimes Tullaroan appear stifled by nerves and perhaps expectations too. If they can relax and simply let their game flow, that would be the ideal, but finding that vital pitch is not easy in hurling.
One likes Graigue’s attitude and approach. They attack games. And they should, with the ever improving Billy Ryan a mighty leader up front, and good ones like Eddie Brennan, Sean Ryan and Conor Murphy around him, while Conor Flynn, the evergreen James Ryall, Tommy Ronan, Eamon Egan, Jesse Roberts and company offer fine support from deep.
Jimmy Coogan reckoned expectations had no impact on Tullaroan’s performances.
He admitted they have been expected to win most games over the last few years. They were beaten by a puck of a ball two years in-a-row in the semi-finals by the team that went on to win the final.
“We have not been far away with a young team,” he reminded. “But we know we certainly need to improve from the semi final. That’s what we will be looking to do.”
It was great to be to be in the final, he assured.
“Our aim this year was to get back to the semi-final,” he pointed out. “Once we got there we were delighted to win. Facing Graigue-Ballycallan now won’t be easy. We are each others greatest rivals, but there is huge respect there.”
In recent times Tullaroan have had the edge in meetings; beating their opponents in the league this year and last.
“This is a final to be won, just like any other match,” the Tullaroan manager added. “We are really looking forward to it.”
Their one injury concern is Martin Keoghan, who is nursing an ankle injury. He should be okay.
Graigue have no such concerns, Declan Browne, revealed.
“When you start out the season every club aims to make the last two,” he said. “We were no different. The way the season went it appeared a lot of clubs were feeling their way along. We qualified for the quarter-finals from the league which was good.
“We hadn’t done that in a while. It is easy to look back and say it all went well when you are in the final, but life is not as simple as that. Right now we are no better off than we were this time last season.
“This is a one off situation,” Declan continued. “The feeling in the county would be that we are facing the best team in the division, but we will give it a right good rattle. We have to hope that our young lads will respond well on the day.”
Who will win? To be honest, one hasn’t a clue. Too close to call.
Path to the final
R1 Graigue-Ballycallan 0-13, Thomastown 0-10
R2 Graigue-Ballycallan 0-18, Glenmore 1-12
R3 Graigue-Ballycallan 0-19, Tullaroan 2-24
R4 Graigue Ballycallan 2-18, Tullogher Rosbercon 2-14
R5 Graigue-Ballycallan 1-16, St Lachtain’s 1-20
Shield final - Graigue-Ballycallan 2-16, Lisdowney 1-13
Quarter-final - Graigue-Ballycallan 2-21, Glenmore 0-16
Semi-final - Graigue-Ballycallan 0-14, Tullogher Rosbercon 0-11
R1 Tullaroan 1-16, Glenmore 1-9
R2 Tullaroan 2-18, St Lachtain’s 0-16
R3 Tullaroan 2-24, Graigue-Ballycallan 0-19
R4 Tullaroan 1-15, Thomastown 0-16
R5 Tullaroan 1-20, Tullogher Rosbercon 0-21
League final - John Lockes 2-14, Tullaroan 1-16
Quarter-final - Tullaroan 1-24, Thomastown 2-11
Semi-final - Tullaroan 0-19, St Lachtain’s 0-13.
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