By Graham Gillespie
It’s a dream scenario for every club GAA player in the country, to line out in an All-Ireland Club Final in Croke Park on St. Patrick’s Day. However for this dream to be possible a mess must be made of the club calendar with teams often playing the most important games in their club’s history in the worst weather conditions of the year after playing very few games during the summer months. Due to the scheduling chaos, particularly at club level, in the GAA it is not unforeseeable to envisage the Paddy’s day club finals being abolished in the not too distant future. Anyways switching focus to this year’s two finals, we have three clubs making their All Ireland final debut, whilst the other will be desperately hoping it will be third time lucky after failing to win either of their previous two outings in Croke Park on finals day.
The first game of the day will see two clubs from counties who are not accustomed to national success battle it out for the Hurling title. The Limerick City based Na Piarsaigh will take on Antrim’s Ruairí Óg Cushendall in what will be a very unfamiliar experience for all involved to kick off the St. Patrick’s Day double header at Croke Park.
Back in November, Na Piarsaigh, who are spearheaded by Limerick forward Shane Dowling, sealed their third Munster Championship in just five years after overcoming Ballygunner from Waterford in Semple Stadium. However on their previous sojourns beyond the Munster Championship they have lost in the semis both times firstly to Loughgiel Shamrocks of Antrim in 2012 and then to Portumna from Galway in 2014. In fact current Na Piarsaigh’s current manager Shane O’Neill was one of the players who came up short in 2012. This time around they didn’t come unstuck against Wexford’s Oulart-the-Ballagh despite a fiercely contested match. Na Piarsaigh led for nearly the entirety of the game but a late four point surge from Oulart forced the game to extra time in which the Limerick City northsiders prevailed narrowly by two points.
With Shane Dowling being the main provider of scores in the team, fellow Limerick inter-county player David Breen will also play a key part from an attacking perspective while midfielders Will O’Donoghue and Alan Dempsey will be the ones others look to for leadership in the difficult moments on March 17th.
Fellow debutants Ruairí Óg Cushendall will be aspiring to follow Loughgiel Shamrocks footsteps in becoming only the second club from Ulster to win the All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship. As Antrim at county level got demoted to the Christy Ring Cup and division 2A in the league, Cushendall have been a bright spot in otherwise miserable year in hurling for the county of the Glens.
Like Na Piarsaigh, Cushendall were taken to extra time on their route to Croker, but unlike their opponents it came in their provincial final against Derry champions Slaughtneill. The following semi-final was surprisingly comfortable for the ten time Ulster champions with them completely dismantling Galway’s Sarsfields 3-12 to 1-6. In an interview with the Irish Examiner Ruairí Óg player Neil McManus said that there has been an greater emphasis on hurling and style of play instead of physical preparation in training and this may well be part of why McManus scored 1-7 against Sarsfields and are now preparing for an All-Ireland final. Veteran Karl McKeegan and man of the match from the semi Ryan McCambridge will be crucial while midfielder Shane McNaughton will be taking up a role in the T.V series The Fall, but not before hopefully picking up an All-Ireland winners medal.
In the football final, two clubs filled with players well used to playing in various All-Ireland finals will be looking to lift the Andy Merrigan Cup for the first time. Connacht champions Castlebar Mitchels will square off against Dublin side Ballyboden St.Enda’s. Two years ago Castlebar Mitchels made the All-Ireland final and faced another Dublin team in St.Vincents but on that occasion Mitchels were beaten by seven points. Castlebar have forged a shot at redemption following an edgy one point victory over Crossmaglen which made them the third Mayo club to make an All-Ireland final this year after Ardnaree Sarsfields made the junior decider and Hollymount-Carramore made the intermediate final. Mitchels will be hoping to buck the trend since both Ardnaree and Hollymount lost their finals and have they have been imperiously free scoring in their run to Croke Park.
In the Mayo final a Neil Douglas hat-trick helped hammer the O’Shea brother’s Breaffy and in the Connacht final they knocked out the All-Ireland holders Corofin by a score of 2-10 to 0-11 with the prolific full forward line of Danny Kirby, Richie Feeney and Neil Douglas all in fine form. This game was also Corofin manager Stephen Rocheford’s last game before he became the Mayo manager. Two more players who will be key are midfielder Barry Moran, who scored the winning point in the semi-final and half-back Paddy Durcan. These two Mayo county players could be crucial in the battle around midfield with Michael Darragh Macauley being part of the Ballyboden midfield.
Ballyboden were the team that this year emerge from the bear pit of the Dublin Championship beating St. Vincents in the final and they have not had it much easier since then. In claiming their first ever Leinster crown in football, ‘Boden squeezed past Portlaoise 2-9 to 1-11 and were fortunate that Portlaoise forward Paul Cahillane missed what looked like a simple free to take the game to extra time. When they played Clonmel Commercials for a spot in the final luck was on their side once more when they kicked three points in injury time to tie the game, the last of which by Darragh Nelson came with more than a suspicion of travelling, before notching up a five point victory in the resulting extra time.
Along with Macauley, forward Andrew Kerin and Donegal keeper Paul Durcan are amongst some of the players the south Dublin club will need on their best form if they are to overcome Castlebar. Although Castlebar Mitchels are slight favourites, this battle hardened Ballyboden outfit will definitely have a great chance of winning the All-Ireland final on their first attempt.