It’s been an unpredictable hurling season and the upsets just keep on rolling.
Kildangan are the latest to defy expectations by ousting Clonoulty at Dolla on Saturday.
I doubt if even the Old Testament prophets could have foreseen next Sunday’s semi-final line-up: Kildangan v. Nenagh Eire Og and Loughmore v. Borrisoleigh.
It’s been that sort of topsy-turvy season with favourites routinely failing to deliver – and who’s to say that we won’t have more of the same on Sunday?
For Clonoulty it’s been an utterly forgettable season - and a worrying one coming after that painful experience against Drom in 2012. They hobbled through the West campaign before crashing dismally in the final. Their game with Toomevara brought some signs of recovery but ultimately it was a mirage, one that Kildangan finally laid bare last weekend.
The North champs hit early and decisively in this replayed quarter-final. The opening goal had a dollop of luck attached, a Tommy Connors long delivery from outfield dipping under the crossbar with, perhaps, the sun being unhelpful to goalie O’Dwyer. It was a tonic opening for Kildangan who pushed on for an early lead, one which was then supplemented by a Darragh Egan goal from a twenty-metre free after Ruairi Gleeson was fouled. Those twin strikes and a smart run of points, with county intermediate Gleeson again prominent, set up an interval edge of nine.
It was a frustrating half from the West men. Their touch was woeful at times and then Timmy Hammersley hit a day when the radar went askew. John O’Neill shared in the agony being denied by an excellent David Sweeney hook early on and then having a twenty-metre free batted away. It was all adding up to a day of misery for Clonoulty.
To their credit they did retaliate strongly in the second half, initially pulling the lead back to just three points after an Aidan White goal. However, crucially, Kildangan had the perfect riposte when Joe Gallagher netted, albeit after taking a liberal number of steps. That was a critical goal coming with about eight minutes remaining and checking Clonoulty’s growing momentum.
The West men did come again, Fiachra O’Keeffe getting the credit for a scrambled goal a few minutes from time, but it was Kildangan who had the encore with Ruairi Gleeson fittingly closing out a three-point win. Over the span of the two games the North side fully deserved their win and I don’t think they’ll be in any sense spooked by having to face Nenagh in the semi-final.
For Clonoulty it has been a year of decline. They’ve been in the mix for county honours on an annual basis, losing back-to-back finals as recently as 2010 and 2011, and dominating the West until Eire Og ended their reign this summer. However, their fifteen point rout by Drom last year must have left a mark and, except for the Toomevara game, they’ve looked a troubled side this season.
By contrast it’s been a year of emergence for Kildangan. Winning the North title was major and adding the Clonoulty scalp now will further embolden them ahead of next Sunday’s semi-final.
Their clash with Nenagh Eire Og is intriguing. It’s a meeting of neighbours’ children, the culchies versus the townies. They’ll know each other intimately having schooled together and crossed paths regularly in various grades. Nenagh will be fancied but the local derby dynamic shouldn’t be overlooked in this meeting.
They met already in 2013, a first round clash up North ending level when Joe Gallagher hit the equaliser. From there Kildangan went on to crush Silvermines in the North decider with Nenagh bowing out at quarter final stage to Toomevara. Now there’s a familiar outcome, Toome’ the perennial masters over their urban neighbours.
Since that North quarter-final defeat Nenagh have regrouped impressively, their defeat of Sarsfields the springboard which has brought them to this semi-final as favourites. By taking out Drom in the last round they’ve managed to eject the top two pre-season fancies for ultimate honours.
Of course it’s not new territory for Nenagh. In 2007 they managed a rare win over Toomevara before toppling favourites Sarsfields in the quarter-final. Then, however, they fell heavily to Loughmore in the semi. History can have a nasty habit of repeating itself so Eire Og need to beware.
The second semi has a freshness about it too with both Loughmore and Borrisoleigh fancying their chances of making the final.
The Mid side have been on a recovery mission since their heavy defeat by Drom in the divisional final. Not many people leaving Boherlahan on that occasion would have speculated on Loughmore resurrecting their season. Yet they managed to get back on track against Roscrea and then had too much for mercurial Killenaule in the quarter-final. It’s been a steady rehabilitation which puts them in good mood now for a championship that suddenly looks winnable.
Borrisoleigh coped well enough with Swans before having too much for Annacarty in the quarter-final. Again it’s been a steady form line though against teams that were always ranked as outsiders for ultimate honours. Brendan Maher remains pivotal to their progress.
Overall then a Nenagh/Loughmore final will be the predicted outcome though in a season of upsets being fancied can be the kiss of death.
There are no favourites for next Saturday’s replayed All Ireland hurling final with most bookies offering evens on the chances of Cork and Clare. It’s that sort of game, unpredictable and likely to be decided by the bounce of the day.
Clare were the better side in the drawn match but were caught by those goals. How they must have rued not reverting to the sweeper tactic when ahead in the final quarter? I suspect Davy and colleagues will put a heavier emphasis this time on defensive security so perhaps on Sunday we’ll have the formation we were expecting the last day.
It will be a fascinating contest once more. Some argue that Cork can hardly play as poorly again but perhaps that underestimates the quality of the Clare hurling. I have been amazed by the maturity shown by such a young Clare outfit. I had viewed them as a work in progress but they’ve certainly gone beyond those limited expectations.
Whether or not it will be enough to get them over the line in this one against traditional Cork is the big issue. I have a hunch it will but I wouldn’t be staking too much on it. Either way let’s hope for a rousing final - and one devoid of controversy.