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Against Clooney-Quin in the quarter-final we saw the re-emergence of that potent, hard-working Ballyea unit. Photograph by John Kelly

Final countdown for Clare hurling title contenders


Eoin Brennan previews this weekend’s senior and intermediate hurling championship semi-finals

Ballyea v Cratloe at Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 2.30pm

It’s a fifth championship clash in as many seasons but while all the other three were borderline affairs including the seesaw 2018 decider, it was their latest showdown at the tail end of August that provides the biggest focus.

It’s too easy to label Cratloe’s 13-point group decider victory as false because there was no reason in the world why Ballyea wouldn’t have thrown everything at their opponents just as they did in similar circumstances in 2018 and 2021.

After all, with a month’s break until the quarter-finals, Robbie Hogan’s side would surely have wanted to finish the group stages on the ultimate high and maintain their two-year unbeaten championship record.

Indeed, if anyone was going to ease off the gas a little, it should have been Cratloe who were in the midst of a more intensive dual schedule. However, Cratloe were flying it at the time and along with lowering Ballyea to top Group 2, also did likewise in the football equivalent over Lissycasey a week later.

With the benefit of hindsight, it could well be a decisive turning point in Ballyea’s season as having cruised to previous victories over O’Callaghan’s Mills, Broadford and Clarecastle, it was a real sobering hammerblow that ensured much introspection over the next four weeks.

It was only in the second half against Clooney-Quin that a more recognisably hard-working, efficient and potent Ballyea began to re-emerge, with the semi-final draw perhaps throwing up the perfect opponent in terms of retribution and motivation.

Cratloe’s quarter-final meanwhile went the opposite way as a razor-sharp first half derby display against Newmarket built up a ten-point lead and should have ensured a comfortable run down the home stretch.

It wasn’t as for the first time Cratloe appeared leggy for large chunks of that second half before finally ensuring victory with two late goals.

A footballing slump last weekend doesn’t bode well either as while there will inevitably be a kick in Cratloe, a hamstring injury to David Collins further thins out an already threadbare side.

Ballyea have much more depth at their disposal and with the prospect of Gary Brennan perhaps to make his championship bow, it could be the final piece of the jigsaw to inch through to a fourth final in seven seasons.

Verdict: Ballyea

 

Éire Óg v Sixmilebridge at Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 2.30pm

Remarkably, these sides hold an even more familiar rivalry with five meetings in only four championship campaigns.

Sixmilebridge edged the first three in 2019 and 2020 (2) on their way to back-to-back titles, while Éire Óg finally turned a corner to dethrone the champions last year at the quarter-final stage.
The Townies failed, however, to back up that form at the penultimate stage and slumped disappointingly short of their heightened expectations of a first senior hurling and football final double appearance since the turn of the millennium.

The footballers, with almost half the hurling side in tow, did crucially claim the ultimate silverware of a first Jack Daly crown in 15 years, with the Ennis side now back in the exact same position of hurling and football semi-finals in the space of seven days.

Éire Óg’s superior ace card against Sixmilebridge has invariably been Shane O’Donnell who have been in even more scorching form this season with 2-21 in just four matches, all of which stemmed from play.

The thing is that while he has torched every defence he’s come up against so far, the one team that will not give the All-Star nominee the freedom of Cusack Park is Sixmilebridge.

Against the twin threats of Aron Shanagher and Aaron Cunningham last time out, they brought back Paidi Fitzpatrick to aid his first cousin Barry while Caimin Morey was also sitting deep to protect his last line of defence.

So what is Éire Óg’s Plan B if O’Donnell is held? Well, everything is geared towards trying to maximise the space for their chief targetman to thrive alongside Danny Russell but possessing alternative formations or even a constant rotation of their forward division must be in consideration.

Equally, the Townies simply have to curb Shane Golden and Jamie Shanahan if they are to prevail, not to mention the pace, power and potency of Seadna Morey whose positioning could be match-winning.

A groin injury for Cathal Malone meant that he missed Sixmilebridge and Ennistymon’s quarter-final bouts but whether he’s available for either’s semi-final showdowns could have a big bearing on the outcome as he’s a major cog in both wheels.

Ciaran Russell too was left off against Clondegad in Éire Óg’s last eight victory on Sunday but the hurlers will need him to play a big role, just as he did against Inagh-Kilnamona when shadowing Aidan McCarthy.

As their previous clashes have demonstrated, the pendulum of victory could swing in either direction but despite the absence of Malone, there’s a renewed vigour and energy in Sixmilebridge this year under new manager Sean Stack that is in contrast to last year’s warweariness. So if they can solve the O’Donnell conundrum, that viridity could well be the deciding factor.

Verdict: Sixmilebridge

Intermediate Hurling Championship Semi-Finals

Tulla v Sixmilebridge at Clarecastle, Saturday 4.45pm

Five points separated the sides in last year’s quarter-final and it could be a similar story as diverging championship paths provide Tulla with the greater timely momentum.

What a team the Bridge’s second string have been in consistently reaching the knock-out stages of the intermediate championship for the past nine seasons, with this remarkably being the fourth semi-final appearance in that time.

They will inevitably throw everything at Tulla who have in contrast grown stronger as the championship has developed and with a first final in sight since their relegation from senior in 2019, it’s an opportunity too juicy to pass up.

Verdict: Tulla

Corofin v St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield at Clarecastle, Sunday 4.30pm

Two sleeping giants of intermediate that have a glorious chance of senior redemption.

While Corofin possess real momentum and buoyancy following not only their historic run to a senior football semi-final but the slaying of top intermediate hurling seed Tubber last time out, the favourite’s tag still remains in Gurteen as since their own dalliance with Tubber, the Parish have been a much more economical and focused side.

Two final appearances in the past three seasons should have sharpened their hunger to finally make the breakthrough.

Their half-back unit of Alan O’Neill, Darragh McMahon and Adam Mungovan provide a match-winning platform that will need to be dominant once more to feed David Conroy and Co. as Jamie Malone and the Cahill brothers Diarmuid and Gearoid will punish any lapses.

Verdict: St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield

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