SUNDAY: SAHC final: Charleville v Fr O’Neill’s, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 12.30pm.
IS it any great surprise that these two sides are now just an hour away from becoming a premier senior hurling club next season?
The answer to that poser is no. From the outset, both O’Neill’s and Charleville had been heralded as the likely finalists if their paths did not cross along the way.
Well, that did not transpire and here they are now in a final that surely carries great potential. They'll battle it out for a cup named after the late Jim Forbes, in a terrific gesture by the Carrigdhoun board.
Both sides are unbeaten, both went straight into the semi-final and both contain hurlers of the highest quality.
Let’s start with Fr O’Neill’s and the remarkable journey that they are on. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were an ordinary junior club in East Cork and trying to get themselves out of that division.
Now they could join the elite of Cork hurling clubs if they can successfully negotiate this final hurdle against what is an excellent Charleville side who have more than held their own since their elevation from Premier intermediate ranks.
In fact, go back over 12 months and they gave eventual finalists and recent winners Glen Rovers an almighty fright down in Mallow, losing out in extra-time by a point.
O’Neill’s followed them as Premier intermediate champions and they have been a breath of fresh air since.
They managed to go all the way to Croke Park last Spring, losing an epic All-Ireland final to Tullaroan.
They are a side that was very well-coached by the previous boss James O’Connor who led Ballyhale-Shamrocks to the Kilkenny crown last Sunday.
Another Waterford man, Sean Prendergast has followed in his footsteps in Ahavine and is continuing that good work.
O’Neill’s are a well-balanced side with quality forwards in Deccie Dalton, Billy Dunne and Liam O’Driscoll.
Dalton is a specialist from the dead ball and will punish any Charleville indiscretions but, of course, at the same time, it will be a similar story with Darragh Fitzgibbon on the Charleville side.
It goes without saying that these two key players are going to have a huge say in the destination of this title.
O’Neill’s have overcome the loss of key defender Ger Millerick through injury but his brothers, Mike, Joe and Tom are doing the business.
Dan Harrington has been a loss too in recent games but in Kevin O’Sullivan and Rob Cullinane, they have two more fine hurlers.
They put four goals past Newcestown last Sunday, no easy feat and they are certainly on some roll.
Charleville, though, will be their acid test. This is a side with a lot of quality and experience throughout the ranks.
In defence, Darren Butler, Alan Dennehy and Finbarr Cagney know what’s required while Danny O’Flynn, further up, is a top operator.
Fitzgibbon is one of the top players in the county while Andrew Cagney, James O’Brien and Jack Doyle are good scoring forwards.
They came through a searching examination of their credentials last weekend against Kanturk, putting up a very impressive 2-26.
They did concede, however, 3-17 and that will not do on Sunday when O’Neill’s come out of the opposite corner.
This Senior A championship has been very competitive along the way with some very good teams that would be capable of defeating plenty of premier sides.
So to have emerged from it and being the last two still standing illustrates what two fine sides O’Neill’s and Charleville are.
O’Neill’s did struggle a bit in the opening sequences against Newcestown and were a point down after the opening quarter.
But they subsequently upped the tempo and by half-time they had more or less settled the outcome, leading by 3-9 to 1-4.
Newcestown did not lie down but O’Neill’s had more than done enough to seal the deal.
The impact of Charleville’s bench against Kanturk was noted with James O’Brien, Tim Hawe and Mark Kavanagh all making contributions on the scoresheet.
Ben O’Connor did the groundwork as coach with the team and Claude Gough has carried on the good work.
Curbing the threat of Dalton for O’Neill’s and on the other side, Fitzgibbon for Charleville will be prioritised in both camps.
Like all finals, this one is very difficult to call, exceptionally so, in fact. That’s the way it is when you have the two best teams in the competition squaring up to each other.
Both have huge momentum behind them and it won’t be easily settled.
Maybe, just maybe Fr O’Neill’s.
Verdict: Fr O’Neill’s.