Clooney-Quin v O’Callaghan’s Mills @ Cusack Park, Saturday 2.45pm
Last year’s unique rollercoaster adventure that eventually ended in heartbreaking circumstances in the final replay against Sixmilebridge could have had several different permutations for Clooney-Quin. The buzz created amongst its supporters of all ages brought an unprecedented confidence that almost saw them snatch the honours in the drawn final but it ultimately proved a missed opportunity as the element of surprise had vanished for the second bite of the cherry that saw Sixmilebridge up the ante to win the day..
With some ageing leaders central to their 2017 journey, it was crucial for the squad to remain intact as they have used the hurt of that final as a motivational tool to establish themselves as a top four side number one and then plot another tilt at a breakthrough not seen since 1942.
That burning desire has manifested itself in their championship outings thus far, showing tremendous character and composure to finally edge out Wolfe Tones in a real opening round battle before blossoming further against Kilmaley to book their quarter-final place by the direct route.
Of course, they have been aided by the scintillating form of undoubted talisman Peter Duggan who has raided for 1-27 in those two matches, a whopping two-thirds of their entire tally as both Wolfe Tones and Kilmaley found it difficult to keep pace with his strength and full spectrum of scoring power.
First and foremost, following competent battling performances against St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield and Éire Óg, the Mills needed a real statement of intent last time out to announce themselves as championship contenders and advance to a first quarter-final in four years.
A 5-16 to 1-07 demolition of Wolfe Tones was just the tonic to provide the confidence needed for the tough road ahead albeit that subconsciously Wolfe Tones appeared content to just have avoided the dreaded demotion series.
Despite the four year gap since their last quarter-final appearance, this is the Mills’ fifth last eight tie this decade but are yet to take that significant step further and reach their first semi-final since 1997. Their initial attempt in 2010 against Sixmilebridge was the closest they came when bringing the tie all the way to a replay but they would be unfortunate to come up against Clonlara in their subsequent attempts in 2012, ’13 and ’14 when missed opportunities proved their undoing.
They will be eager to alter that unwanted record on Saturday and after last year’s Senior B and Under 21B titles, there are a new crop of talent such as Ciaran Cooney, Jacob Loughnane and Gary Cooney emerging as key players in their side.
However, the obvious question remains are to what have O’Callaghan’s Mills in their locker to curb this year’s All-Ireland Championship top scorer Duggan?
Conor Cooney has been their best man-marking option at full-back but whether the Mills will risk a more roving role for the former county senior remains uncertain. As a result, Clooney-Quin, backed by Duggan, the Corry’s (Mikey and Jimmy), Ryan Taylor, Fergal Lynch, Conor Harrison and Cillian Duggan remain the safer and more experienced option to return to the penultimate stage for the second successive season.
Sixmilebridge v Cratloe @ Cusack Park, Saturday 4.30pm
The latest in a perennial stream of crunch Garneyside derby clashes that have greeted the Canon Hamilton race this decade, perhaps a necessity considering that between them, Sixmilebridge and Cratloe have contested eight of the last nine county finals albeit never meeting in the decider itself.
Cratloe’s victories in 2009 and ’14 also sandwiched an ill-fated decider against Newmarket in 2012 whereas the ‘Bridge have been that bit more ruthless since ending an 11 gap to their last title success in 2013 as the water-polo final of 2011 aside, they have added crowns in biennial fashion in 2015 and ’17.
Incidentally, the last two derbies have been at the quarter-final stage, both going the way of Sixmilebridge who edged a heated 1-20 to 1-19 affair in 2015 with a more straight-forward 3-18 to 1-14 win last September on their way to title honours. Before that, Cratloe knocked the then-champions out of the 2014 race at the group stages to complete a historic senior hurling and football double while the previous three spoils were shared evenly in 2010 (1-13 to 1-13 draw in Round 2), 2011 (Bridge 1-17 to 1-13 win in the semi-final) and 2012 (Cratloe 2-17 to 1-12 win in Round 1).
This seventh meeting this decade therefore becomes a timely evaluation of where these sides currently lie in the Clare Hurling Ladder as since 2014, Cratloe have failed to get back to a final while equally the ‘Bridge have never successfully defended a title.
The emergence of a new crop of talent in Diarmuid Ryan, Billy Connors, Rian Considine and even the growing maturity of Shane Gleeson, Daithi Collins and Shane O’Leary have reinvigorated Cratloe’s credentials this year. And while they had mixed results in their opening two outings, the quality of their opponents had proven greater than the ‘Bridge’s as Inagh-Kilnamona and Ballyea are both contesting quarter-finals this weekend, ironically against each other, whereas both of Sixmilebridge’s victories came against teams that have since dropped out of the championship. An ailing Clonlara surprisingly fell into the relegation series while Crusheen were subsequently beaten by Inagh-Kilnamona in Round 3 so while Sixmilebridge could only beat what was put in front of them, they do need to be more wary of their neighbours this time around.
With their squad lessened in depth from last October’s third crown in five seasons, Sixmilebridge have admirably surpassed the 20 point mark in each of their two ties to date, with Jamie Shanahan taking up the mantle as scorer-in-chief with 25 points. He will require more assistance from Shane Golden, Brian Corry and Cathal Malone if they are maintain their 20 point scoring feat which will be essential to getting over their nearest and dearest foes.
Cratloe won’t lack motivation either though as due to those previous pair of quarter-final defeats, a third would be sorely felt. And in Conor McGrath, Podge Collins, Cathal McInerney and aforementioned duo Billy Connors and Rian Considine, they appear to have the greater variety of scoring threats which in another expected derby of inches could be the marginal advantage in their revenge mission.
Éire Óg v Kilmaley @ Cusack Park, Sunday 1pm
While a quarter-final spot was most welcome for both Éire Óg and Kilmaley, an even greater necessity is to go that significant leap further to the penultimate stage. Indeed, nothing but victory will suffice for an Éire Óg side that are threatening to stagnate as also rans as this is their fourth quarter-final in five seasons and are yet to clamber over that elusive hurdle thus far.
It’s certainly not that they were out of their depth, more an inability to bring their previous form into the knock-out series against Cratloe (2014 and ’16) and Clooney-Quin last year, especially when it seemed as if the game was ripe for the taking.
Their talent, particularly up front is unquestioned, and although they have suffered injuries to defenders David McNamara and Conor O’Halloran while All-Star nominee Shane O’Donnell is also set to miss Sunday’s showdown through his studies in Harvard, they still have plenty of pace and power to trouble any side in the championship as their flawless campaigns to the last eight stage have demonstrated over the past three seasons.
This year, they are yet to ignite the championship, doing just enough against Tulla and O’Callaghan’s Mills thanks to strong finishes to ensure that they had a month’s break to the quarter-finals, essential in their dual senior title challenge. However, it’s now that they need to up and ante considerably when presented against a Kilmaley side that have contrastingly seen greater and darker days than their opponents in recent seasons.
After all, in 2015, they were within seconds of reaching first county final in 11 years, only to be outdone by a trademark Domhnall O’Donovan leveller which forced a replay that Clonlara deservedly prevailed. Only 12 months later, the then underage kingpins, would remarkably spiral to intermediate after a five game winless campaign that would only prove a blip in their development path as they reclaimed their senior status with little fuss. That said, they perhaps should have grasped their unique Munster Intermediate Championship opportunity, being ousted by eventual All-Ireland winners Kanturk after extra-time in the provincial decider.
That Jekyll and Hyde inconsistency has already reared its head in their return to the Canon Hamilton race but crucially their disappointing dip against Clooney-Quin wasn’t detrimental to their title hopes and therefore could yet be the catalyst for a timely regrouping process, initiated last time out against Tulla to compliment their determined opening revenge victory over 2016 relegation rivals Newmarket-on-Fergus.
While the attacking prowess of Mikey O’Neill, Mikey O’Malley, Daire Keane and Sean O’Loughlin has been crucial while newcomers Bradley Higgins, Cathal Darcy and Tom O’Rourke have all assimilated seamlessly into the side, the lack of steel has certainly been labelled as an obvious issue amidst such seesaw performances in recent years, a timely indication that underage talent doesn’t immediately lend itself to physical prowess in the top tier.
It has also been a factor in Éire Óg’s development but their pace and movement has been sufficient to override such frailties as their top eight of David Reidy, Shane O’Donnell, Eimhin Courtney, Davy O’Halloran, Danny Russell and Tadgh Connellan have proved elusive in dragging opposition defenders out of their positional and comfort zones.
Indeed, Kilmaley and Éire Óg are very similar in a lot of ways, making this an intriguing wrestle for supremacy. Éire Óg’s need is greater though and although O’Donnell’s absence is monumental, the drive to bridge an 15 year gap to their last senior semi-final should prove too insatiable to quench.
Verdict: Éire Óg
Ballyea v Inagh-Kilnanona @ Cusack Park, Sunday 2.45pm
Expectancy is something that has rested contrastingly on these sides’ shoulders in recent years. For Ballyea, their development path has been a patent series of stepping stones, starting with their breakthrough to the semi-finals in 2013, a year in which they also garnered Senior B honours. And since cementing their A status, the five subsequent campaigns have all accomplished a place in the business end, with 2016 being the unforgettable years of firsts, with their run to historic county and provincial honours only ending on St Patrick’s Day in the All-Ireland Club Final.
Successfully defending their title last year just proved a step too far for a squad that had been constantly on the road for 16 months but while they did lose key warriors from 2016 this season, regardless, there is a real sense that Ballyea have recharged their batteries sufficiently for another tilt at the Canon.
The inter-county core of Paul Flanagan, Jack Browne, Niall Deasy and most significantly a Tony Kelly in unstoppable form have been essential to their direct passage to the quarter-finals that included the defeats of Whitegate and Cratloe after extra-time. The considerable loss of Flanagan to injury will unsettle their spine but with Ballyea being the highest scoring team remaining in the championship with an average score of 3-23 thanks in the main through Kelly and Deasy with 3-37 between them, they will be confident that they can outscore their opponents at the other end.
Inagh-Kilnamona on the other hand have proven a more frustrating enigma to their supporters as they have invariably disappointed when required most while managed to win when least expected. It has meant that their last quarter-final place was in 2013, a year on from almost reaching the county final, with a succession of inconsistent displays since dogging their championship campaigns. That was largely through to a transition of players, amongst those the Arthur brothers Niall and Ger along with targetman Cathal Lafferty who transferred to Dublin clubs.
However, with all three back on board this year, they are joined by a golden conveyor belt of underage talent that contested the last three Under 21A finals, winning two in 2016 and ’18 while also sandwiching a prestigious Minor A title last year.
However, despite soaring to the Clare Cup Semi-Finals this year, there were still creases to be ironed out as evidenced in their opening round tie against Cratloe when turning a six point deficit into a three point lead only to skilfully reverse back around the corner to eventually lose by six.
They did make amends against Newmarket-on-Fergus and Crusheen and therefore while they do have momentum on their side, the acid test of their championship credentials undoubtedly comes this Sunday against the 2016 champions. Leadership displays from county men David Fitzgerald, Jason McCarthy and Patrick Kelly is a prerequisite, the experience of the Arthurs, Tomás Kelly, Haulie Vaughan, Kevin Hehir, Damien Lafferty and Conor Tierney are also essential while the emergence of Aidan McCarthy (0-9) and David Mescall (1-5) have provided added strings to Inagh-Kilnamona’s bow to give them a very healthy balance amongst their side.
Alongside their belly for battle, the remaining elephant in the room surrounds their ability to curb Ballyea’s heartbeat Tony Kelly but perhaps there is no better man to orchestrate such a plan than Inagh-Kilnamona manager Fergal Hegarty who coached and then managed Ballyea in 2016 and ’17.
A sole man-marker has often been futile but if they are to go down that route, Jason McCarthy who performed a successful shadowing job on Lee Chin in Clare’s National League trip to Wexford earlier this year would appear the most obvious candidate.
Therefore based on their slightly superior balance and Hegarty’s inside knowledge, if Inagh-Kilnamona can finally fulfil their potential, they may just have the edge on Ballyea, a victory that could ignite their belief that the Canon is not merely an ambition for the future but the present.
Senior Championship Relegation Final Play-Off
Whitegate v St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield @ Tulla, Saturday 3pm
The perception of which side is better equipped to survive may have switched from Whitegate to St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield based on their contrasting demotion ties last time out but regardless of the favourites tag, relegation finals are an utterly unique entity that often don’t go according to any form and definitely inform managements and supporters much more about the character of their players than on any other occasion.
St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield certainly needed an encouraging display following lacklustre defeats to O’Callaghan’s Mills and Clarecastle and not only did they get the desired effect but it almost resulted in toppling Clonlara, something that seemed of miracle territory beforehand.
Whitegate on the other hand, perhaps still smarting after their heartbreaking injury-time reverse against Tulla, were sorely out of their depth against Newmarket which added to the Ballyea surrender in Round 1, was also out of character for such a team of renowned battlers.
Davy Conroy’s 1-28 has represented almost 60% of the Parish’s total scores but at least they have a consistent threat as Whitegate have only tallied 1-39 between all three matches to date.
Eoin Quirke, Colm Madden and last time out Tommy Holland carried the bulk of their challenge but more is required from talisman Colin Burke, Ian Fahy and Brendan Bugler if they are to inspire their troops for another great escape.
Whitegate’s experience of this being their fourth time in the relegation series in the five years since their promotion from intermediate should be an advantage in terms of handling the inevitable anxiety that will envelope this tie.
However, having already been relegated from the senior football ranks, if St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield can replicate their Clonlara display and get the best out of Conroy, captain Alan O’Neill and Kevin Dilleen once more, they should have the tools to avoid a swift return to intermediate.
Verdict: St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield
Senior B Competition Semi-Finals
That said, Corofin’s direct path has come by means of successive victories over the second strings of Newmarket and Inagh-Kilnamona whereas Parteen have faced three first teams in their more scenic route to the last eight in Broadford, Ruan and Bodyke.
Therefore this is an unprecedented test of Corofin’s character as Parteen certainly won’t lack confidence or hunger to return to a second successive semi-final.
With championship favourites Feakle and Broadford meeting at the same stage, the door of possibility has certainly opened up for last year’s finalists Tubber to at least emulate their 2017 feat if not make a dramatic return to senior level while they still have their experienced squad intact.
As their last two campaigns have proven though, nothing is guaranteed and avoiding building any castles in the sky should be parked in the face of a very real danger in Inagh-Kilnamona’s second string who have continued to defy the odds this year. Despite only possessing a threadbare squad, the Combo have already taken the scalp of Scariff but although Aidan McNamara (broken collarbone) and John Fawle retired through injury for Michael Cusack’s last weekend, a focused Tubber should still have enough firepower to return to the semi-finals for the third consecutive season.
It’s unusual for a second string to hold the favourites tag over a first team opponent but Sixmilebridge are certainly no ordinary reserve side as evidenced by the fact that this is their sixth quarter-final appearance in a row, with four of their five previous efforts being successful ones.
Scariff have also reached the last eight stage for each of the last four seasons since their relegation from senior but crucially have never managed to get any further. However, they will never get a better chance after receiving a major late boost last time out to finally get over neighbours Smith O’Brien’s, a side that had ended Scariff’s championship hopes in two of those three previous quarter-final attempts.
Sixmilebridge did have the edge between the sides in the group decider in 2016 and might have enough to shade another tight content if they can avoid coughing up frees for the unerring Diarmaid Nash.
One can debate the injustice of having to meet twice in quick succession but the fact remains that one of these heavyweights will be out of the championship race come Sunday evening. Their low scoring Round 2 clash smacked largely of shadow-boxing as Feakle edged the day by the minimum but the gloves will be off this time around in what could well turn out to be the tie of the entire championship if both can play up to form.
With Oisin Donnellan and Martin Daly back on board, Feakle have been the more consistent side and with senior still fresh in their minds, they have more than enough to do the double over their neighbours. So it’s more about which Broadford turn up as having put Parteen to the sword in devastating fashion, they have since languished just above mediocrity against both Feakle and Cratloe. There’s nothing like the prospect of a championship exit to rally the troops however and with Stiofan McMahon returning with a match-altering five point haul last time out, Broadford should be better equipped to get back to their undoubted best.
Anything less though and a Shane McGrath-led Feakle will unquestionably punish them to detrimental effect.
With the Junior Championships commencing before their senior and intermediate equivalents, the fact that all of this year’s Junior A quarter-finalists are second strings tells its own story as Clare won’t now have any representative in the Munster campaign. That is of little concern to Wolfe Tones or Ballyea however who will face-off for the carrot of a semi-final showdown with Éire Óg.
Both lost players since their group meeting in late July but while the outcome that day was uncertain, the Shannon side did come out 1-14 to 0-15 victors and therefore despite a six week gap to their last competitive outing, could have the edge on experience to double the dose.