All-Ireland Club IHC semi-final: Charleville v Graigue-Ballycallan, Thurles, 2pm
CHARLEVILLE will hope to follow in the footsteps of Kanturk tomorrow by taking another major step towards winning the All-Ireland IHC club title.
Twelve months ago Kanturk went all the way to Croke Park and brought home the title and now the Cork and Munster champions hope they can replicate that success.
But there are no thoughts along that line yet and there is a realisation in the North Cork club that a huge obstacle in the form of the Kilkenny and Leinster champions must be overcome first.
Kilkenny clubs dominate the roll call of honour in this championship and Charleville face a considerable task tomorrow in Semple stadium.
It has been a wonderful adventure thus far for the side coached by former Cork great Ben O’Connor and the manner of their Munster title triumph over Clare champions Feakle was a gargantuan achievement considering that at half-time in the game at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick they looked a spent force when trailing by a huge margin.
But the immense character of the side that had been in evidence all season came to the forefront again and after a tremendous comeback they ended up with the trophy.
The scenes of joy that day were well justified and the outcome represented one of the best wins ever by a Cork club side on the provincial stage.
Prior to that, Charleville had to come through a very tough grind in Cork in a championship that is nearly a lottery with seven or eight teams all capable of winning it out.
In the final, they were taken to a replay by a very good Courcey Rovers team and again their reserves of character were required in both games.
Many people are viewing this game tomorrow as the final but nobody in Charleville or Graigue-Ballycallan sees it this way.
Whoever comes through will face a big task against the Galway and Connacht champions.
Graigue-Ballycallan come into this game with very strong credentials of their own and, in fact, they are probably carrying the favourites’ tag.
They were involved in a magnificent Kilkenny final against Tullaroan before the senior final and everybody present in Nowlan Park that day believed it far surpassed the fare on offer in the senior final.
Graigue-Ballycallan trailed by five points that day with just seven minutes remaining but in a rousing finish they ended up winning by three points on a scoreline of 2-16 to 2-13.
Their march through Leinster saw them overcome Celbridge and St Mogues of Wexford before taking care of the challenge of Portlaoise in the final.
They are now very similar to Charleville, a battle-hardened side and they have a blend of youth and experience that makes them a formidable side.
Former Kilkenny great Eddie Brennan is still doing a big job for them as is James Ryall while Conor Murphy has been clocking up big scores.
Billy Ryan, Shane Butler, Darragh Egan and Aaron Brennan are other players with a lot of quality in the ranks and Charleville certainly cannot give them the kind of head start that they gave Feakle in the Munster final.
But this is a fine Charleville unit that has Darragh Fitzgibbon in splendid form for one so young. He was outstanding in the comeback against Feakle and will be a key player here again.
Darren Butler was outstanding too in that Munster final at corner-back while Jack Meade, Finbarr Cagney and Jack Buckley are other very solid defenders.
Danny Flynn always leads by example and he should be fully fit now while Mark Kavanagh, Andrew Cagney and Tim Hawe are others who have contributed handsomely on the journey to this defining day.
When a Cork club side faces a Kilkenny counterpart there is always that bit extra on the table and this, in all probability, is going to be the acid test for Charleville.
But they have done everything right up to now and Ben O’Connor and the selectors Tony McAuliffe and John Moloney are getting the best out of them.
When you reach this stage of the championship you are in bonus territory but you also want to complete the journey Any team representing Kilkenny deserves respect and this Graigue-Ballycallan club have a rich heritage and were a very strong senior unit not that long ago.
Eddie Brennan might be advanced in years but his experience is still a huge asset to the Kilkenny side and he will have to monitored closely.
Graigue-Ballycallan will mark Fitzgibbon closely too and will be aware of his running game and the threat that he poses.
It all makes for a hugely interesting game in Thurles. Both camps will have learned as much as they can about each other and will probably have video evidence too.
This could be a cracking game of hurling that might well require extra-time again. The head might be suggesting that the Kilkenny champions will be stronger but on this occasion the heart rules and we’ll stay with Charleville to write another glorious chapter on their way to Croke Park next month.