Last weekend, we travelled up to Galway for our annual Clare hurlers golf outing, which is always something to look forward to. We golfed in the Galway Bay resort, before heading into the city for the evening. As usual, it was only a matter of time before the chat drifted towards hurling.
When we got talking about Sunday’s Munster club final, the only one who was giving Clonlara any chance was Christy ‘Rusty’ Chaplin. “I give them a shout, Dalo,” said the bould Rusty. “Nobody gave Borris-Ileigh a hope back in 2019 and they turned Ballygunner over in the final.” They did but I said to Rusty that you couldn’t compare the current Ballygunner team to that side, even if most of the same players are still involved. Furthermore, that match was played on a paddy field of a pitch in Páirc Uí Rinn.
Losing that final was a key turning point for the Gunners, who have gone to an entirely different level in the meantime. The proof lies in the numbers – Ballygunner haven’t lost a match in the province since.
As well as their firepower, they have become incredibly hard to beat. You’d fancy them on any kind of a pitch now, but even more so on a carpet like Semple Stadium, which is like a second home to the Gunners.
They do have to carry a burden of potential history on their backs going into this game. The Gunners are one of only five teams to have won successive Munster titles, along with Newmarket-on-Fergus, Roscrea, Blackrock and St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield. But they’re now seeking to become the first side to win the three-in-a-row. Will they really see that as a burden? No. The Gunners will only be inspired by that challenge.
Ballygunner are almost unbackable favourites but I give Clonlara a much better chance than the bookies and most neutrals – even Clare people. If they turn up and their big guns fire, Clonlara have the weapons to hurt Ballygunner.
The big question is how much damage can they really cause? The other big ask is how well can this Clonlara full-back line hold out against a side with lethal threats inside – Dessie Hutchinson, Patrick Fitzgerald and Kevin Mahony. Names never mean anything in the context of performance and ability but the full-back line is the one area where Clon don’t have real hardened experience. Logan Ryan, Ger Powell and Michael Clancy are all solid defenders but solid won’t cut it against that Ballygunner full-forward trio.
Clonlara’s biggest task will be trying to limit the volume of supply inside but they have a solid half-back line in Paraic O’Loughlin, Dylan McMahon and David Fitzgerald. McMahon has been playing so well that he surely merits a call-up from Brian Lohan. Clonlara’s midfield of Jathan McMahon and Aidan Moriarty have also been excellent all season but this is a whole different step up in terms of trying to stop Ballygunner building the play through the middle third.
Clonlara have loads of class up front but one of their biggest tasks will be trying to collapse Ballygunner’s platform around launching their attacks. The key player in that sector is Philip Mahony. In my opinion, he has to be marked as tightly as someone like Dessie at the other end.
If I was Donal Madden, I’d be handing Colm Galvin that brief, getting Galvin to sit on Philip, allowing John Conlon to come a little deeper and instructing Diarmuid Stritch to come into those pockets around the centre.
Clonlara will be looking to snipe scores from that sector but their main strategy will play around the Gunners half-back line to try and get Ian Galvin and Micheál O’Loughlin on the ball inside. Better players than Galvin have failed to get the better of Barry Coughlan but Ian has a low centre of gravity and he will give it a right go.
I hate the term ‘free shot’ because this is a Munster final. But not having that pressure may suit Clonlara, especially considering the pressure they were under to win the Clare final. I’d be confident they will perform. But I’d be equally convinced that so will the Gunners. They will win the three-in-a-row.
In Saturday’s Leinster final in Croke Park, O’Loughlin Gaels should get the job done against Na Fianna but this may not be as straightforward as everyone thinks either. Na Fianna’s players have stepped up in the absence of Donal Burke. Brian Ryan has been a massive addition too, but there is every chance Burke could appear for at least a half here. I know he is back to full training. This was always his target if Na Fianna could reach this stage. Could Burke be the final sprinkle of magic on what has already been a fairytale season for Na Fianna?
Na Fianna will have noted how O’Loughlin’s didn’t score a goal in the county final, or against Kilcormac-Killoughey last weekend. On the other hand, O’Loughlin’s have kept a clean sheet in their last four games. Their defence is superbly marshalled by Paddy Deegan, Mikey Butler and Huw Lawlor. And I think Na Fianna, even with Burke possibly on the pitch, will struggle to get enough scores to win the match.
The Slaughtneil-Cushendall Ulster final is an intriguing clash. Cushendall have been seriously battle-hardened in Antrim and from the Ulster semi-final against Portaferry, whereas Slaughtneil haven’t played since their county final destruction of Kevin Lynch’s 11 weeks ago. Slaughtneil have tried to compensate through challenge games against teams like Naomh Éanna and Camross but how well will that have hot-housed them for the kind of intensity they’ll meet from Cushendall?
I think the Derry side will have been able to compensate through the intense competition they have in the squad. This team has evolved nicely where some of the new guys that have come in are talented and athletic. I’m sure the guys they have replaced were trying to rip that jersey off their backs in trying to reclaim it during their recent internal matches. I fancy Slaughtneil.
Most of all though, I’m looking forward to a fiesta weekend of provincial hurling finals.