WHILE the realignment of the county hurling championships saw many of the top sides from the previous premier intermediate grade move up to senior A, that didn’t lessen the quality of what was now the third tier.
As if proof was needed, the draw for Group C of the championship provided it, with Blarney, Castlelyons, Inniscarra and Blackrock’s second team all vying for places in the knockout stages.
With the original competition format having seen a situation where third-placed sides could advance to the quarter-finals, the shorter timeframe as a result of Covid-19 saw a change, meaning that only the top two teams would advance.
For Blarney, the fixture-list provided a local derby clash with Inniscarra on August 1 and, while such an encounter always presents the potential for danger, it was a test they came through impressively, winning by 1-23 to 0-13 at Coachford.
While Inniscarra had reached the semi-finals of the competition in 2019 along with Blarney, the victors’ superiority was never in doubt. They led by 0-10 to 0-8 at half-time, with Mark Coleman dominant in the half-back line and Shane Barrett, Pádraig Power and Declan Hanlon all contributing in attack.
While Inniscarra did draw level at one stage in the second half, three points in a row from Barrett eased Blarney clear again and his goal left him with a tally of 1-7 from play and Blarney looking ahead with positivity.
With Castlelyons having beaten Blackrock by 15 points in the other game, it meant that Blarney’s meeting with the East Cork side in Carrigtwohill a week later was effectively a play-off for a place in the knockout phase.
Blarney had a great start as Power pointed in the first minute but it wasn’t a portent of what was to come as Castlelyons had a strong response with points from Anthony Spillane, Colm Spillane, Keith O’Leary and Michael Spillane. When Colm Spillane – the Cork defender playing in attack for his club – netted a goal just after the first-half water-break, Castlelyons were in firm control and led by seven points at half-time.
While Blarney – missing their injured player-manager Paul O’Leary – did threaten a second-half revival, Castlelyons were able to keep them at bay and a Blarney goal from Keith Costello was too late to make a material difference on the scoreboard, which read 1-20 to 1-14 in Castlelyons’ favour by the end.
It meant that had three weeks to prepare for a make-or-break clash with Blackrock. The Rockies, beaten IHC finalists in 2017, had lost their previous two games but still held an outside chance of advancing if they could beat Blarney by enough in Riverstown and if Castlelyons overcame Inniscarra in their final match. Blarney were too keyed-in to allow such an eventuality to develop, though, even after allowing Blackrock an early 0-3 to 0-2 lead.
Coleman was at his best in a tour de force, scoring six points as they led by 1-10 to 0-10 at half-time, Hanlon conjuring the goal.
Barrett and Mark O’Leary had further points as they eased clear on the resumption, but a Blackrock goal from Joe Logue kept the contest alive. Blarney weren’t to be denied, however, with Barrett grabbing another goal as they ran out winners by 2-23 to 1-13.
They would face Ballincollig in the quarter-finals while Castlelyons topped the group to take one of the semi-final spots along with Carrigaline. The relegation play-off paired Valley Rovers with Blackrock, the Innishannon side winning by 0-20 to 1-14 in Páirc Uí Rinn on September 11.
The following night, Blarney faced off against their Muskerry rivals at the same venue but, despite going in as hot favourites, they were slow to start.
Ballincollig had the game’s first seven points to establish a secure lead by the water-break and they were 0-13 to 0-4 ahead by half-time. Cian Dorgan, Seán Walsh and Robbie Bourke were all in the groove scoring-wise for Ballincollig, but Blarney improved on the resumption, with Alan McEvoy and Coleman coming to the fore.
Hanlon’s goal gave them a lifeline as they came back to within six points but when Fenton Denny found the net for Ballincollig in the 52nd minute, they were 1-18 to 1-9 to the good and Blarney looked beaten.
Even after a second Hanlon goal and points from Coleman and Patrick Crowley, they still trailed by three and Dorgan made that four as the game moved into injury time. A Coleman free made it a one-score game and then Blarney got the bit of magic they needed, with Crowley firing through a sea of bodies to get their third goal, tying the game at 1-19 to 3-13. It seemed as if extra time would be needed but Blarney weren’t finished and when Peter Philpott and Joe Jordan ensured they won possession from the puckout, Power landed the winner to complete an epic fightback.
As jubilant as they would have been, there was little time to rest on their laurels as they had turn around and face into a semi-final against Carrigaline the following week, but Blarney rode the wave of momentum.
Carrigaline had been the top-ranked side after the group stages but in Páirc Uí Rinn on September 19 they couldn’t live with Blarney, who triumphed by 4-20 to 1-12. The victors meant business, forging an early lead with points from Hanlon, Power and Coleman before Power found the net. While Carrigaline did get off the mark, Blarney were always on top and Coleman got their second goal to help them to a 2-7 to 0-6 half-time lead.
Though Brian Kelleher and Éanna Desmond had points as Carrig came back to within five points early in the second half, it was just a brief interruption to the Blarney flow as Barrett and Power were in superb point-scoring form.
Power added two more goals to put the issue firmly beyond doubt, with Carrigaline only managing a late Robert O’Shea consolation goal.
For Blarney, it meant a re-match with Castlelyons, who had seen off Courcey Rovers by six points in the other semi-final, with Anthony Spillane scoring 1-6 in a 1-23 to 1-17 win while his brother Michael got five points.
On October 3 in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Castlelyons were dealt an early blow as Colm Spillane – so influential for them throughout the championship – had to retire injured.
It upset their rhythm, with Blarney able to move into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead through points from Coleman (two) and Barrett and they were 0-7 to 0-5 in front when Castlelyons fashioned a goal chance but Michael Spillane’s effort hit the side-netting.
After that let-off, Blarney pushed on with a point from Power and three Coleman frees to give them a healthy 0-12 to 0-6 advantage at half-time. While Castlelyons did have the first point of the second half through Michael Spillane, Blarney’s response was emphatic as Patrick Crowley played in Power for a goal.
The lead was extended further as Coleman sent over two frees to make it 1-14 to 0-7 and it was 1-17 to 0-11 by the time of the second-half water-break.
Having gazumped Ballincollig, Blarney knew that they couldn’t take victory for granted in the final quarter and scores from Niall O’Leary and Michael Spillane (three) gave Castlelyons hope as they came back to within five points.
That was as close as they came though and Barrett’s point was followed by two from the game’s outstanding player in Coleman as they triumphed by 1-20 to 0-15.
With such a talent allied to exciting attacking options, they will have nothing to fear in senior A.