Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: -3°C
Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE Two huge games in Croke Park tomorrow.
# Talking Points
Semple showdown, Ballyhale’s All-Star cast, bigger picture for Kilmacud
It’s a huge weekend of provincial club final action around the country.

1. Classic or conquest in store at Semple Stadium?

In 2018, when these two sides first met, Ballygunner needed a last-gasp equalising goal and two periods of extra time at Walsh Park before marching on to a breakthrough Munster title. Last year, the Gunners blitzed past a Tony Kelly-less Ballyea in Ennis, two consolation goals hardly masking their 3-20 to 2-6 demolition.

So will it be a classic or a conquest on the neutral sod of Semple Stadium this Saturday (3.15pm)?

Ballyea have shown no end of grit to grind out one-point victories against Éire Óg Ennis and St Finbarr’s in their last two outings, both won with injury-time points and even later opposition misses from placed balls. It was a similar story last year when they won all three of their Clare SHC knockout fixtures by the minimum and without Kelly for the semi-final and final.

Ballygunner have improved even since their All-Ireland breakthrough last February. Patrick Fitzgerald, in his first year out of minor, has scored 2-5 and pocketed a man-of-the-match award from his first two Munster outings. All-Ireland-winning hero Harry Ruddle and Billy O’Keeffe, named on the 2022 Club Hurling Team of the Year, are both making their impacts off the bench this term. When trailing Na Piarsaigh by five at the break, they restricted the Limerick champions to four points thereafter while opening up space at the other end to score 1-11.

Ballygunner have been shocked in this position before, taken down by Borris-Ileigh in the 2019 Munster final, but since Ballyea’s 2016 Munster success, the Clare title-holders have been eliminated in all four of their subsequent Munster campaigns by Ballygunner.

2. Just how much have Kilmacud improved in 12 months?

They’ve added a free-scoring Footballer of the Year nominee to their ranks and the form lines give some empirical estimation of Kilmacud Crokes’ rate of progression this year. Last term, they beat Portarlington by two points having trailed until the final quarter, and defeated Naas by seven after leading by the minimum at half-time. This time around, with Shane Walsh in tow, both rematches ended in 11- and nine-point thumpings but more significantly were over within minutes of the restart. The final margins a mere matter of historical record than current relevance.

The Downs, led by Tailteann Cup winner Luke Loughlin and county hurler Niall Mitchell, have kicked impressive tallies in beating St Mary’s and Ratoath but can they navigate their way through Crokes on Sunday (4.30pm) any better than a Portarlington team who appeared primed for such a task after kicking 3-19 a fortnight before slumping to 0-4 across the hour?

Thoughts of Mullinalaghta 2018 and their Kilcoo devastation at Croke Park last February will surely keep Kilmacud’s eyes trained on the bigger prize.

3. How do you stop Ballyhale’s All-Star cast?

Kilmacud Crokes’ progression this year was underlined by their 12-point turnaround to gain revenge against Clough-Ballacolla of Laois in their Leinster opener, with a similar lack of fuss expended in their semi-final follow-up against St Mullins to reach a first Leinster SHC final. They held their opponents to 1-12 both days out, while Oisín O’Rorke was their scorer-in-chief with 1-21 across the two games. Both attack and defence will need to fire again in the first part of Kilmacud’s double attempt at Croke Park on Sunday (2.30pm).

Ballyhale, 11 times Leinster champions, have made a habit of chewing up and spitting out challengers to their Leinster throne in finals. They had 17 points to spare on Ballyboden in 2018, nine on St Mullins in 2019, and 27 in hand against Clough-Ballacolla last year. Like fellow 2022 All-Ireland finalists Ballygunner, no team has come within one score of them this season.

That’s not to say Ballyhale haven’t had their wobbles in recent history. They needed late goals to avoid elimination against St Rynagh’s and St Thomas’ last season but can Kilmacud limit their variety of scorers? Other teams haven’t managed that so far. Across their six games played, the scoring tallies say it all: Eoin Cody 4-29, TJ Reid 1-35 (in five games), Adrian Mullen 2-18, Colin Fennelly 3-12. How many of those scoring threats do Kilmacud need to starve to win?

4. Can Tourlestrane put the shackles on Moycullen?

A first-time winner in Connacht is guaranteed between Moycullen in their first senior provincial campaign and Tourlestrane in their first final for 40 years at Pearse Stadium (12.45pm).

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Tourlestrane may be big underdogs having emerged from a side of the draw containing the Leitrim and London champions but as seven-in-a-row Sligo kingpins, they’ve paid their dues and gained plenty of experience along the way. Twice, they could and perhaps should have ambushed Mayo champions Ballintubber (one-point losers in 2018) and Knockmore (two-point losers last year having led until the final five minutes).

What those and many of Tourlestrane’s biggest moments in Connacht share is a low scoreline. So it was when Fergal O’Donnell’s side produced a second-half shutout and kicked the final seven points, three from Liam Gaughan, in an 0-8 to 0-6 semi-final comeback victory over St Mary’s Kiltoghert.

Moycullen have natural pedigree after emerging from a county championship long dominated by Corofin until recent years. They have Galway captain Seán Kelly roaming from half-forward, Peter Cooke dominant in midfield, and Dessie Connelly sharp-shooting up front. They were far too good for Westport on their Connacht debut but were taken to extra time when expected to glide by Strokestown last day out. Will that give them fair warning?

5. Will Slaughtneil sustain their high standards?

Slaughtneil may be going for a fifth Ulster SHC title in six years at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday (1.30pm) but Dunloy will be looking to strike a blow for tradition against the new order after a string of defeats.

Slaughtneil have had either seven or eight points to spare against Dunloy in their three recent meetings (2017, 2019, and 2021) and gone on to push Ballygunner, Ballyhale, and Na Piarsaigh close in subsequent All-Ireland semi-finals. Their pace and physicality can disrupt any team with its spine of multitalented inter-county footballers. Cormac O’Doherty, Brian Cassidy, and Brendan Rogers continue to do the heaviest of the score-getting, as evidenced in their 19-point semi-final victory lap against Portaferry, and Dunloy have yet to effectively quell that trio in their encounters.

The four-time All-Ireland finalists from Antrim haven’t won a provincial title since capturing their 10th in 2009. Their fourth attempt since then will require them to do what they couldn’t in their previous three: beat Slaughtneil. Their Antrim credentials are well established by now, with four titles in a row, and their patience will be wearing thin for an encore as provincial bridesmaids but the Derrymen carry their own hurt and longing for another crack at an All-Ireland semi-final.

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