All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship final
Dunloy Cuchullain’s v Ballyhale Shamrocks; Croke Park, Sunday, 1.30pm, live on TG4
AS challenges go in club hurling, they don’t get any greater than Ballyhale Shamrocks and Dunloy will look to take down the eight-time champions at Croke Park on Sunday with the ultimate prize on offer.
Four times in the past, Cuchullain’s reached the final but each time came up short: Birr in 1995 after a replay, Sixmilebridge in 1996, Birr in 2003 and Newtownshandrum in 2004.
Of course, the playing personnel has changed from this days, but one ever-present is manager Gregory O’Kane who played in all of those finals. Indeed, he has been involved in every senior trophy the club has won, going all the way back to their first county title in 1990.
The North Antrim club would dearly love to get their hands on the Tom Moore Cup for the first time this weekend, but to do so they must find a way to get past the Kilkenny side that is brimming with medals and some of the top players in the country.
Names such as TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, Richie Reid Adrian Mullen, Eoin Cody and Joey Holden roll off the tongue and stung by last year’s last-gasp defeat when Ballygunner’s Harry Ruddle blasted to the net from 25 metres with the last puc of the ball, Ballyhale will be eager to banish that memory with their club’s ninth title.
“Ballyhale’s legacy is ridiculous,” O’Kane acknowledges.
“They have won eight All-Ireland titles and that would have been nine only for a last-gasp goal from Ballygunner last year.
“They just keep churning out All-Ireland winners, Allstars and probably have two of the greatest hurlers ever (TJ Reid and the retired Henry Shefflin) who have played for their club. I don’t know what it is they have in the water down there but it is unbelievable.
“Every game takes on a life of its own and all we can do it try to be the best version of ourselves.
“We will see if we can get close to Ballyhale on the day and that’s all we can concentrate on.”
Despite being considered outsiders, Dunloy won’t be short on confidence heading south on Sunday morning.
Their Ulster final win over Slaughtneil was a monkey off their back and liberated from getting over that hurdle, the wide open spaces of Croke Park suited them down to the ground in their semi-final win over Galway’s St Thomas’.
It capped a magical year for the Cuchullain’s who won their fourth straight county title and sent them into the Christmas break on a high.
With a bit of downtime, the dawning off 2023 saw mounds reset and refocus on the challenge coming their way.
“We definitely excelled in Croke Park,” O’Kane agreed.
“It suited our style and to be fair to the boys, they embraced it and the performance spoke for itself.
“The semi-final came at a great time as you’re going into Christmas having got through to another final - Christmas came early.
“Boys were off on holiday so it was just a lovely time. We spent a bit of time together but players went away and did their own thing too so it was fantastic to have something to look forward to.”
That semi-final win came at a cost as Aaron Crawford broke his collarbone inn the second period and will be out for a lengthy spell, “unfortunate because he has been outstanding for us all year and it’s a savage loss to lose a player of that quality,” O’Kane admitted.
But in better news, Chrissy McMahon is back in contention, as is Conor McKinley who missed the entire Championship due to injury, but played a half for Antrim in last week’s Conor McGurk Cup game against Armagh, as did Nicky McKeague, Kevin Molloy, Anton McGrath and Gabriel McTaggart.
Also fit and ready to go for Dunloy is the heartbeat of the team, Paul Shiels, who has fully recovered from a back injury sustained in the county final and his presence will be huge for the Antrim champions, his vision and ability to pick holes in a defence crucial to give the Cuchullains' flying forwards ammunition to thrive.
Many of the younger members of the team don’t know what defeat in Croke Park is like with that semi-final win on top of two Joe McDonagh Cup titles for the county contingent that includes the supremely talented Keelan Molloy, Conal Cunning, Seaan Elliott, Ryan McGarry, Phelim Duffin and goalkeeper Ryan Elliott.
There is an abundance of pace and craft throughout the team to thrive in attack, but they must also try to limit the Leinster champions at the other end with the aforementioned TJ Reid the obvious threat - flanked by county stars Mullen and Cody - but Fennelly will prove a handful at the edge of the square.
It will take a disciplined and near perfect display for Dunloy to triumph, but there is a sense they have a huge performance in them to be in the hunt and as last year's dramatic finish proved, anything is possible.