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Historic day in Croke Park

Wednesday, 15th January, 2020 5:04pm

Saturday will be a historic afternoon in Croke Park as neighbouring clubs Russell Rovers and Fr O’Neills contest the AIB All-Ireland Club Hurling Finals.

It's of no real surprise either that the opposition in both cases comes from Kilkenny. Up next is Conahy Shamrocks, the club of former GAA president Nickey Brennan, and the famed Tullaroan will face the East Cork clubs.

For O’Neills and Conahy it will bring back memories of previous, and in both cases successful, visits to HQ.

Junior Final

It’s been a remarkable journey for Russell Rovers, recovering from a loss in the 2018 County Final, to get this far reflects greatly on a committed and dedicated group of players.

Manager Michael Mannion made that point after their dramatic semi-final win in Kilmallock two weeks ago.

“I can’t speak highly enough of everyone involved - it looked all over (in the semi-final) but we kept our composure and get there in the end when it looked lost.”

As for the final, Michael said it’s an occasion to savour: “It's huge for the entire area but our job is to remain focused as this opportunity may not come around again, so we have to ensure everything we do is geared to winning.”

The fact that they won the semi-final without Josh Beausang was exceptional but Brian Hartnett gave a quality performance with the likes of James Kennefick, Kevin O’Brien, Kevin Moynihan and JP Ivers all making important contributions.

The expectation is that Beausang will be fit to start the final and that will further boost their chances.

What of Conahy Shamrocks? This is their second time contesting the junior final and they impressed in winning the Leinster title and had an easy win in their All-Ireland semi-final.

James Bergin, John Mullan and Tom Phelan all have an eye for goal, while they have excellent defenders in the Redmonds and Dave Morris.

The fact that the Kilkenny men have been in Croke Park before will help them, but there is a resolve about this Rovers side that I like, epitomised by the clinical manner in which they saw off Michael Breathnach’s in extra time.

Noel Furlong is a shrewd coach and will have his charges well drilled. That and the return of the prolific scorer Josh Beausang might just tilt the tie the way of the Cork and Munster champions.

Intermediate Final

The big talking point surrounding this intriguing encounter is the absence of Mark O’Keeffe and Billy Dunne from the O’Neills attack.

Failure to overturn the red cards they received in the semi-final win over Toreen represents a serious blow to the Cork champions, but even more so for the lads themselves, as to miss out on an All-Ireland final appearance with your club is gut wrenching.

That aside it removes two quality players from the attack, two players who have made important contributions.

Dunne chipped in with crucial scores, while O’Keeffe’s workrate and graft robs them of a vital component.

Of course they still have an excellent and prolific scorer in Declan Dalton while Eoin Conway, Rob Cullinane and Jason Hankard are good players to have in any side.

O’Neills have had a great campaign built on a strong and free scoring attack, backed up by an excellent defensive unit in which the Mellericks are solid and quality players.

Tullaroan will represent O'Neills' toughest test to date, with the Walsh brothers, Shane, Padraig and Tommy, anchoring their challenge, the latter revelling in his role at full-forward.

But, as with all Kilkenny teams, they are well balanced with Tomás Dunne, Martin Keoghan, Bill Gaffney and John Walton all making important contributions in their impressive march to this final.

Having seen O’Neills several times this year, I strongly fancied them to go the distance, but will the loss of Dunne and O’Keeffe hurt them? I hope not but I fear it might just give Tullaroan a crucial edge, enough to deny the East Cork side the opportunity to add this title to the Junior All-Ireland won in Croke Park in 2005.

Third level

Much has been made of the timing of these very important competitions and it must be said cramming them into January does not look to be one of the GAA’s most inspired decisions.

UCC’s win over NUIG in the Sigerson Cup last week sets up a quarter-final clash with IT Carlow on Sunday and despite not having home advantage, UCC should advance to the semi-final.

Also on Sunday, in the Fitzgibbon Cup, local rivals CIT and UCC clash in what should prove to be a lively encounter at the Mardyke at 3pm.

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