AIB All-Ireland Club Hurling Final
Coolderry (Offaly) V Loughgiel Shamrocks (Antrim)
I think it is fair to say that this time last year, hardly anyone would have picked either of these two teams to win through to the All-Ireland club final for 2012. I think it is also fair to say that very few people would have bet that the club final would contain representatives from Offaly and Antrim, but in fairness to the two clubs involved, they are fully deserving of their place in the club calendar’s big day.
In many ways, this unique final pairing is indicative of what has been a rather unusual club championship. In recent years, the All-Ireland champions have invariably come from Galway and Kilkenny with Portumna and Ballyhale Shamrocks hoovering up titles with enormous regularity. Outside of those two, De La Salle from Waterford and Oulart the Ballagh from Wexford have been knocking on the door without ever getting in. When the big two were knocked off their perches in their respective counties, we looked to the likes of reigning champions, Clarinbridge, Ballygunner (Waterford) and Ballyboden St Enda’s (Dublin) as contenders, until they too fell by the wayside.
All the time, Loughgiel Shamrocks and Coolderry were quietly going about the business of winning their club championships. The former managed to defend the title they had claimed 12 months previously when they annexed their first title since 1989 while down in the faithful county managed to move ahead at the top of the roll of honour while defending their own title.
As you would expect, Loughgiel had the more straight-forward path through their provincial championship as they saw off Kevin Lynch’s (Derry) in the semi-final before beating Ballycran (Down) in the final. In the Leinster championship, Coolderry really had to do it the hard way as they saw off a highly fancied Ballyboden St Enda’s in the semi-final before beating hot favourites, Oulart the Ballagh in the final on a scoreline of 1-15 to 1-11.
Then, in the All-Ireland semi-final, Loughgiel caused a major surprise when they knocked out the Munster champions, Na Piarsaigh of Limerick in a humdinger of a game in Parnell Park. On the day, it was a spectacular performance from the brilliant and often controversial Liam Watson that fired the Antrim champions into the final. Watson was simply unmarkable on the day, rifling over 16 points, 6 from play in a display that the Limerick champions simply had no answer for.
In the other semi-final, Coolderry once again went in as underdogs against Gort, the team that had dethroned the reigning champions, Clarinbridge in the Galway County final. Once again, the Offaly men upset the odds and helped by 1-8 from former and perhaps future Offaly star, Damien Murray they came away with a 3-16 to 0-17 win.
To suggest that either of these two teams is a one-man team, is very wide of the mark, as I doubt any team will ever make it to an All-Ireland final while being reliant on one key player. It may well be that Loughgiel rely on Watson far more than Coolderry rely on Murray. Indeed, the talent in the Coolderry forward line is one of the talking points in the run up to this final because as well as Murray, the Loughgiel defence will also have to deal with Cathal Parlon, Barry Teehan, Brian Carroll as well as new star, Eoin Ryan.
Loughgiel themselves have a forward line that will also relish the wide open spaces of Croke Park with Bennie McGarry and Eddie McCloskey in particular bound to be a danger to the Coolderry defence.
Another factor that will have to be taken into consideration is that for the first game in a long time, Coolderry will have to deal with the tag of favouritism and while they are not going to underestimate the Glensmen after what they did to Na Piarsaigh, you just never know how the favourites mantle will sit on shoulders. In fairness to Coolderry, in the likes of Murray, Parlon, Carroll, Joe and Kevin Brady they have players with enormous experience.
Loughgiel are the only one of these clubs that already have a title to their name having lifted the trophy back in 1983 when they beat a team from, yes you’ve guessed it, Offaly. I have no doubt that a win for Loughgiel would do wonders for hurling in Antrim. Offaly hurling could also do with a lift right now and I have a feeling that it is the Faithful men who will be celebrating on Saturday night.