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The Kilkenny, Waterford, Dublin and Down champions chasing All-Ireland glory

The club game takes centre stage in Croke Park today.

Stephen O'Keeffe and Colin Fennelly.
Stephen O'Keeffe and Colin Fennelly.
Image: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
  • Hurling – Ballyhale Shamrocks v Ballygunner, Croke Park, 3pm
  • Football – Kilmacud Crokes v Kilcoo, Croke Park, 5pm 
  • Both live on TG4

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1. Will we get a hurling classic?

If a general sense of anticipation builds up before an All-Ireland club hurling final, the game that unfolds has tended to disappoint in recent times. Of course there are gripping stories from the winners’ enclosure and stunning individual displays, but the contests needed to grip neutrals have been missing.

Of the last ten campaigns, seven finals have been settled by margins of eight points or greater. How many compelling deciders have there been? The Cuala-Na Piarsaigh two-game saga of 2018 stands out, particularly the drawn game, while the last final was entertaining stuff between Ballyhale and Borris-Ileigh.

Today’s final has a different feel, the expectation that a cracker will unfold. There is a similarity to the Ballyhale-Portumna game of 2010, the hopes are pinned on the galaxy of stars on display. TJ and Dessie, the Fennellys and the Mahonys, O’Keeffe and Mason, Cody and Kenny – all over the pitch there are potential duels to savour.

2. Breaking down the defensive web

In the absence of Paul Mannion, Kilmacud Crokes have spread the scorers around their forward line. They possess plenty of talented attackers outside of the thee-time All-Star and his knee injury forced them to step up and take on more responsibility. 

At different stages Tom Fox, Dara Mullin, Callum Pearson, Shane Cunningham and Shane Horan have nailed important scores for the Dublin champions. 

They’ve faced defensive set-ups before, not least in the county final against St Jude’s, but Kilcoo’s crowded rearguard is an entirely different proposition. Scoring opportunities will be at a premium and the Kilmacud front six will need to be patient and clinical when they arise.

3. Ballyhale’s recent scares as they chase history

No club has completed three-in-a-row in the hurling championship before. There may have been a gap of a year due to the pandemic but a Ballyhale Shamrocks success today would elevate their standing further, matching Corofin’s football heroics in 2020.

To achieve that, Ballyhale will need to avoid a repeat of the nerve-wracking conclusions that have characterised this campaign. Eoin Cody’s goal dug out a draw against St Rynagh’s in Leinster before they finished off the job in extra-time and then came TJ Reid’s extraordinary intervention with seconds remaining on the clock in Thurles to swing last month’s All-Ireland semi-final against St Thomas.

Are they a team showing signs of slippage as their survival instincts surface or one primed to now unleash their full power on the biggest stage? Today will be revealing.

aib-gaa-all-ireland-club-senior-championship-finals-media-day Kilcoo's Paul Devlin and Kilmacud's Dara Mullin. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

4. Kilcoo on a mission

The pain of their All-Ireland final extra-time defeat to Corofin was bad enough, but then Kilcoo were denied another crack at the competition last season due to Covid. For club teams, the window of opportunity to compete for All-Irelands tends to be a short one, as Kilcoo were well aware. 

They overcame some stern tests in Down and Ulster, most notably against Malachy O’Rourke’s Glen in the provincial semi-final. The defensive, possession-based style they play under Mickey Moran is not easy on the eye but it’s certainly effective and the players have mastered it. 

In addition, the experience of their recent trip to the final should help them.

“We have definitely learned from our previous time in Croke Park, so hopefully this time around the preparation will be a lot quieter in terms of getting ready for the game,” remarked Paul Devlin this week.  

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5. Ballygunner’s ambition

There are parallels that can be drawn between the Kilcoo narrative and that of Ballygunner. The Waterford champions are sampling All-Ireland final day for the first time but they are well-versed in these winter club journeys. Since 2009 they have gobbled up ten county titles but it took until 2018 before this group crashed through the Munster barrier. 

Last month’s victory over Slaughtneil was the club’s first in an All-Ireland semi-final and arrived off the back of a sublime showing against Kilmallock in the Munster final. Their team has been remodelled since losing to Ballyhale in 2019, some vital additions like Ronan Power, Paddy Leavy and, most critically, Dessie Hutchinson. They now aim to land the biggest prize.

6. Kilmacud’s rich history

Kilcoo are chasing their first Andy Merrigan Cup, but Kilmacud have a rich history in the competition.

If Crokes are successful this afternoon, they’ll move up to joint fourth in the All-Ireland club football roll of honour with their third title. As it stands they are one behind fellow county men St Vincent’s and St Finbarr’s of Cork.

Nemo Rangers (7), Crossmaglen Rangers (6) and Corofin (5) lead the way on top of the leaderboard. They were last crowned champions in 2009 with Rory O’Carroll the only member of that team still playing. Prior to that they lifted their maiden crown in 1995, under manager Tommy Lyons. 

Compiled by Fintan O’Toole and Kevin O’Brien.

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