AT the commencement of the Premier Cork County SHC, outside of Blackrock, there might not have been that many who would have predicted the line-up for the semi-finals.
The champions from the previous season, Midleton, Sarsfields, Glen Rovers and Imokilly would have been ahead in the pecking order of contenders for the title but along the journey that quartet fell by the wayside, Midleton and Sarsfields not even making it through to the knockout stage.
That illustrated again how level the playing field has become, unlike in Waterford where Ballygunner have been ruling the roost and recently completed the nine-in-a-row down there.
Whilst that is a remarkable achievement, it cannot be good for the overall state of the game in that county, one club being totally dominant and the rest miles behind. In fact, it has almost been a given in recent times that the ‘Gunners are going to end up as champions.
Thankfully, that is not the case here on Leeside, things are much more open and next Sunday’s last four are all there on merit.
The Barrs are a welcome entry into that category again and a lot of neutrals would not mind if they ended a famine that has now reached 29 years since they last lifted the trophy.
Newtownshandrum, have been on the outside looking in since their glory days between 2000 and 2009 but they have always been regarded as a side that can make life very difficult for the best of opponents.
During their period of dominance, Erin’s Own were never too far away and in the subsequent years since they won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 they have been always been closer to the top of the pile than anywhere else.
And it’s a measure of their resilience and the dedication of their players that a number of their players from those winning years are still back-boning the team, the Murphy brothers, ‘Hero’ Eoghan, Shay Bowen and Stephen Cronin, all truly great club servants.
The Rockies are probably the slight favourites now to regain the crown that they won in 2020 and that is based on the fact that their unit of players have already climbed to the top of the mountain, and know what the requirements are to reach that lofty height.
That gives them no guarantee, of course, and in truth, all the four teams contesting Sunday’s two games at Páirc Uí Chaoimh will believe that their time is coming again. The Barrs have been very impressive at times in getting to this stage of the championship and their confidence must be high after victories over Blackrock, Sars and Douglas.
In that win over the Rockies at the group stage, they exhibited tremendous powers of recovery, finding themselves nine points in arrears before the first quarter had run its course before mounting a superb comeback.
They were not overly impressive in seeing off Douglas but they found a way when it mattered as the game aged and dug deep to get the win.
There is a nice blend to the side, a mix of very experienced players alongside the youthful exuberence of quite a few of the minor team that triumphed two years ago.
Erin’s Own avoided a potentially dangerous quarter-final tie by taking the direct route to the last four and that was a fine achievement in itself, gaining that one spot that was on offer.
They will be underdogs going in against the Rockies on Sunday but Martin Bowen has instilled a proper mentality into his players, giving them the belief that they are as good as any of the opponents they encounter.
The Rockies are looked upon as having more firepower up front with Alan Connolly, Michael O’Halloran, Tadhg Deasy, Robbie Cotter, who was in sublime form against Imokilly and the O'Keeffes.
However, Robbie O’Flynn is an outstanding forward for Erin’s Own, Conor Lenihan has been showing up well and Eoghan Murphy still poses a dangerous threat if he gains possession.
Newtown are delighted to be back, chasing hard again and defeating the Glen the last time out will have been a major confidence booster.
They are believing again down there and there is an assembly of some very good hurlers making that happen.
Tim O’Mahony is really starting to blossom now, Jamie Coughlan remains one of the best club forwards in the county, Cathal Naughton brings a wealth of experience to the side, Conor Twomey and the younger Cormac O’Brien add to the prowess contained in the side and one thing is certain, they won’t be found wanting if it comes down to a real dogfight against the Barrs.
The perception thus far is that the championship has not really ignited, that the standard has not reached any great heights at times.
At the same time, quite a few of the games have provided exciting finishes and there have been some strong performances from some of the younger players, Cotter for the Rockies, Eoin Downey for the Glen, Brian Roche for Bride Rovers in the ‘A’ championship, young O’Brien for Newtown, Ben O’Connor and Ethan Twomey for the Barrs.
That’s what Pat Ryan is looking for, younger guns putting up their hand to add freshness to Cork set-up.
This is the real business end of the campaign now, time to really prove your credentials when the stakes are getting much higher.
A Rockies-Barrs final would be a very attractive proposition for many but Newtown and Erin’s Own have their own history from their past jousts.
What is needed most of all on Sunday is two cracking games that go down to the wire, raising the height of the bar for Cork club hurling.
Without any great conviction, we’ll predict an all-city southside final, a throwback to other times.