Senior Hurling Championship Round 2
Inagh-Kilnamona v Clonlara
at Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 2.45pm
A ‘Group of Death’ Super Sunday commences with the tie of the entire round as one perfect record has to fall between Inagh-Kilnamona and Clonlara.
Originally pencilled in for a fortnight ago, the switch of Round 2 and 3 at Clonlara’s request gave Inagh-Kilnamona the opportunity to build further momentum by adding the scalp of O’Callaghan’s Mills to neighbours Kilmaley.
Of course, Clonlara also overcame the Mills in their opening bout but considering the performances of both sides so far, it’s not overstating it to suggest that neither Inagh-Kilnamona or Clonlara are the finished article quite yet.
Considering their strength-in-depth, attacking flair and inter-county experience, unfulfilled potential has been a nouse around their necks over the past decade.
Inagh-Kilnamona have certainly benefitted from their two outings, with incremental improvements displayed against the Mills, even if they still have a tendency to leave their opponents in matches and not having a ruthless streak.
Similarly, being the first time that had a near-full strength side at their disposal, Eddie Horgan’s Clonlara are still developing a collective understanding but undoubtedly the addition of the County Under 20 trio Aidan Moriarty, Colm O’Meara and Dylan McMahon has bolstered their defensive unit and allowed the Galvin brothers Colm and Ian, John Conlon and Cathal O’Connell to prosper.
Inagh-Kilnamona still require their Clare senior triumvirate of the McCarthy brothers Aidan and Jason and David Fitzgerald to excel but they will need much more from their supporting cast to get the better of Clonlara on Sunday.
Such is the health of their current panels that this could well be a group decider but even though a defeat wouldn’t be detrimental to either’s hopes of qualification, they still won’t want to give an inch. Inagh-Kilnamona have developed a better flow so far but Clonlara might have the edge on balance if they can avoid any ringrustness from their three week break.
O’Callaghan’s Mills v
Whitegate at O’Garney Park,
Much like Ennistymon and Cooraclare’s clash in the senior football equivalent last weekend, this is essentially must-not-lose territory for both O’Callaghan’s Mills and Whitegate who have failed to register any points so far in the Group of Death.
Neither will be thinking about potential quarter-final qualification though as this is strictly about getting over the line by whatever means possible just to ensure that they were not in line for the dreaded relegation play-offs.
While the Mills were in last year’s county final, 12 months previously they just about escaped relegation to the intermediate ranks, a fate that fellow East Clare rivals Tulla are still trying to bounce back from.
Whitegate, meanwhile, have been regular demotion candidates, but their powers of escapology are unrivalled since returning to senior level back in 2013.
That said, for all their unquestionable battling qualities, limited numbers and scoring options have resulted in only securing one championship victory in the 13 regular round matches since their ascension eight years ago.
It does suggest that Whitegate are capable of taking a big scalp as Cratloe will testify to in 2017 and being frank, it’s the one match that they would have targeted from the outset.
Still, while they haven’t reached the heights of 2020 so far and most frustratingly have been their own worst enemies in their slender back-to-back defeats to Clonlara and Inagh-Kilnamona, the Mills haven’t become a bad team overnight and will still feel that they can win their last two matches and hope that other can do them a favour.
And it’s that greater consistency and winning know-how which makes O’Callaghan’s Mills stand out a more viable option for victory this Sunday, albeit that it will be a close content throughout.
Verdict: O’Callaghan’s Mills
Clarecastle v Scariff at Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 2pm
A county final pairing exactly two decades ago, the latest meeting between the old rivals is far from deciding the champions, more about avoiding dropping out of the senior championship altogether.
Of course, with another group match to play and even the nuclear option of a relegation round robin series, all is not lost for the defeated side this Saturday. However, when weighing up the potential opposition, it’s not outlandish to suggest that this is essentially a winner-takes-all showdown for senior consolidation.
That pressure-cooker atmosphere has been experienced thrice before by the Magpies in 2015, ’17 and ’19, each time managing to negotiate their way out of danger. However, with such an influx of youth into their side over the past 12 months, only a handful of their charges will have any experience of that intensity and the same goes for Scariff who are only back in the top tier after dropped from senior back in 2014.
Strange as it may seem however, despite losing by five points more to Sixmilebridge than Scariff did to Wolfe Tones, Clarecastle will arguably have taken more encouragement from that first round tie as their young sides fought hard against the back-to-back champions and indeed their 2-13 scoreline was the highest inflicted on the ‘Bridge since 2019.
Scariff meanwhile could only muster 1-08 against Wolfe Tones, a paltry return considering the enthusiasm they seemingly had built up over the past year. Scariff are much better than that though but perhaps a return to Cusack Park for the first time since their intermediate final victory over Doora/Barefield last September can finally unearth their true potential on the field of play.
Both sides were without experienced key players in their opening round ties and their availability will be essential on Saturday as much like 1991, this is Clarecastle and Scariff’s county final.
Ballyea v Crusheen at
Cusack Park, Friday 6.30pm
First things first, let’s address the elephant on the sideline as new Crusheen manager Kevin Sheehan faces his native club for whom he won a Canon Hamilton on the field (2016) and then as manager (2018). The initial uncomfortableness was dealt with in the sides’ Clare Cup bout back in late July but Sheehan and Barry Coffey’s inside knowledge of Ballyea cannot be underestimated as they knows what makes them tick, especially against Crusheen, having been on the end of a defeat (2019 Quarter-Final – Crusheen 0-18 Ballyea 2-11) and of course last year’s opening victory for Ballyea by 0-16 to 0-14.
Without the Sheehan factor, this match-up would invariably pitch the favourites tag firmly in Ballyea’s corner, having not only edged three of the last four championship clashes but also due to their vastly superior experience.
Backed by a championship winning spine, Ballyea appeared to have fleshed out their squad options this year whereas Crusheen are currently in a bit of transition following the enforced departures of stalwart defenders Alan Brigdale and Ciaran O’Doherty while a new crop that includes Oisin O’Donnell, Luke Ketelaar, Murrough McMahon and Diarmuid Mullins have all been catapulted into senior action.
The most worrying part of Crusheen’s opening reverse was the 11 strong spread of Cratloe scorers, a factor that would be unheard of in their first coming a decade ago.
The thing is that Ballyea haven’t developed such a richness of scoring options as inevitably Tony Kelly, Niall Deasy and the lively Aaron Griffin carried that burden in their narrow escape against Broadford last time out.
Vast improvement is required in both trenches but while Sheehan’s tactical handling of Tony Kelly will be the most intriguing factor, one would still consider that Ballyea have less of a development leap to make, especially after Gary Brennan’s red card was dismissed on appeal. And therefore the Bally Boys should have one foot dangling in the quarter-finals come Friday evening.
Éire Óg v Clooney-Quin at Cusack Park, Saturday 5pm
Having already done so to memorable effect in the quarter-finals of 2017, Clooney-Quin can knock Éire Óg out of the championship with a victory on Saturday.
The 2017 version seemed set up for the Townies long-awaited return to the last four but instead that place would be usurped by a Clooney-Quin side that thrived upon momentum to catapult themselves to a first county final in 74 years.
One of the chief orchestrators of that win, Fergie O’Loughlin is back on board with Clooney-Quin this year as is chief destroyer Peter Duggan who remarkably fitted back in as if he had never been away three weeks ago in Clooney-Quin’s opening draw with Feakle.
In contrast, Éire Óg’s first round outing was more centred around what players were absent as injuries ensured that the Ennis side started without county seniors David Reidy, Shane O’Donnell and Aaron Fitzgerald.
O’Donnell was sprung from the bench at half-time to match-altering effect and the good news for Mattie Shannon and Gerry O’Connor is that Aaron Fitzgerald featured for the footballers last weekend against Clondegad while the potential return of David Reidy would be a major additional boost to their confidence and armoury.
Whatever personnel is available, the bottom line is that it’s make-or-break for Éire Óg as only a victory will suffice to keep them in the hunt for a sixth consecutive quarter-final.
Due to that opening stalemate with Feakle, defeat wouldn’t be as grave for Clooney-Quin but while there was a lot to like about their performance including some exciting new talent, there was still a tendency to fall back into old habits of over-depending on Peter Duggan for that sprinkling of scoring fairy dust.
The Townies are arguably the best equipped in the group to deal with the aerial threat of Duggan and Fergal Lynch along with the pace and movement of Ryan Taylor while in the flip side, the likes of Shane McNamara, Cillian Duggan and newcomer John Conneally will have to be at their best to contend with O’Donnell, Danny Russell, Darren O’Brien and possibly David Reidy and Gavin Cooney if both are given the green light to return.
It could swing either way but simply because of their greater need, the Townies might just shade matters.
Verdict: Éire Óg
Newmarket-on-Fergus v Feakle at Cusack Park,
A showdown between the Clare Cup table-toppers as champions Feakle finally get to test themselves against the 1B equivalents. There was some talk at the time about a possible league play-off but much like the outdated format in Division 5 that ended up with a effective final between 1st and 16th, it wouldn’t have made much sense for the 1st versus 11th placed sides to meet for the county’s secondary prize.
A first Clare Cup in 33 years will have done wonders for Feakle, who arguably should have overcome Clooney-Quin in their opening championship tie but in the end, could just have easily have lost it, only for goalkeeper Eibhear Quilligan to repel a Peter Duggan penalty.
Newmarket meanwhile probably haven’t been given the pats in the back they should have merited by overcoming top seeds Éire Óg, mainly due to the diminished Townie challenge they faced because of injuries to key players.
Operating below the radar is no bad thing though as the most important factor for the Blues in securing their first opening round victory since 2017 was that they were able to respond when Éire Óg slashed their eight point lead to just one by the turn of the final quarter.
The biggest factor in Sunday’s penultimate round clash is that it is fixed for Cusack Park and not Sixmilebridge as in their last two championship clashes. O’Garney Park has been a relative fortress for Feakle who aside from their extra-time reverse in the 2019 Quarter-Final to Inagh-Kilnamona, have had a strong record in the East Clare venue since returning to senior in 2019, even accounting for the Blues in their first match back thanks to timely goals through Shane McGrath and Gary Guilfoyle.
It’s not that they have a poor record in the Park, just not as healthy, with defeats to Éire Óg and Crusheen offset by victories over Clooney-Quin and Clarecastle.
There has been only a puck of the ball between the sides in their last two championship meetings in 2015 and ’19 and Sunday should be no different as a win in either direction will be crucial in such an inch-tight group.
Potential Quarter-Final places are also on the line in the intermediate championship, highlighted by three top-of-the-table clashes in Groups 1 (Killanena v Sixmilebridge), 3 (St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield v Parteen) and 4 (Bodyke v Ruan). Killanena, the Parish and Bodyke will enter as favourites with Tulla and Smith O’Brien’s expected to maintain their winning start to Group 2.
Two battles of second strings stand out in the Junior A Hurling Championship as Crusheen and Éire Óg face-off in Group 2 while Kilmaley and Ballyea will be a pivotal tie, especially for back-to-back finalists Kilmaley to remain in this year’s race.