St Finbarr's v Ballyea: Barrs could struggle with experience and physicality in Munster arena

Ger Cunningham's young side are very much outsiders in a provincial series that also features Ballygunner and Na Piarsaigh
St Finbarr's v Ballyea: Barrs could struggle with experience and physicality in Munster arena

St. Finbarr’s Brian Hayes gets to the sliotar ahead of Blackrock's Conor O'Brien. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

NEW CORK hurling kingpins St Finbarr’s face off against their Clare counterparts Ballyea in the Munster club hurling championship semi-final at Ennis on Sunday hoping to turn Cork club’s recent poor record in the competition completely on its head.

Cork, as a county, may still be at the head of the role of honour table with respect to titles won by their clubs in the provincial decider, but most of those seventeen titles were won from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.

The last title won by a Cork club was the crown won by Newtownshandrum in 2009, when they beat Ballygunner by 2-11 to 2-9 at Semple Stadium. The north Cork side also won titles in 2003 and 2005, but we have to go all the way back to 1987 for the previous instance of a Cork club being crowned Munster champions when Midleton’s Ger Power lifted the O’Neill Cup after the Magpies had beaten Tipperary’s Cappawhite by 1-12 to 1-11 at Fitzgerald Stadium.

Glen Rovers are the last Cork club side to contest a provincial decider when they faced off against St Finbarr’s opponents Ballyea back in 2016, but they came up eight points short in that Semple Stadium final. 

That is the only appearance by a Cork club in the final in 13 years, which illustrates just how difficult they have found combat in the Munster championship.

It has to be acknowledged that this fallow period has coincided with the emergence of a number of seriously powerful sides throughout the province, with Limerick’s Na Piarsaigh, Waterford’s Ballygunner and Clare’s Ballyea at the forefront. It is no surprise then that those three are the teams standing in the way of the Barrs' first Munster title since they beat Roscrea by 2-12 to 1-14 in the 1980 decider.

Most observers blamed the lack of physicality in Cork club hurling for their subsequent struggles in Munster. The overly officious refereeing within the county was not being replicated at provincial level. Tackles and hits that were being blown in Cork were not being whistled outside the county, which in turn had the effect of ensuring that Cork’s club hurlers, and therefore by association its inter-county hurlers too, were not being acclimatised for combat beyond the county bounds.

Cian Walsh and Jo McCarthy, St Finbarr's, at the Reardens All-Stars. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Cian Walsh and Jo McCarthy, St Finbarr's, at the Reardens All-Stars. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

That was the theory anyway. In recent years referees have begun to leave the whistle in the pocket a bit more in the county championships, with the result being that the fare has become a tad more physical in nature.

The Barrs won this year’s Premier Senior championship by employing a swashbuckling brand of hurling, going through the lines when it was on, but also not being afraid to hit Brian Hayes long in the full forward line too. A big part of their success was the emergence of the young brigade such as Hayes, Ethan Twomey, Ben O’Connor and Ben Cunningham, with one of the takeaways being their ability to thrive in the physical stakes of the game, despite their tender years at this level. 

It is going to be extremely interesting to see how they do against the finest club side in Clare.

Ballyea won the county final in Clare back on 23 October with a thrilling 2-14 to 1-16 victory over Éire Óg, with 1-6 from Niall Deasy and 0-4 from their talisman Tony Kelly helping them over the line.

This is Ballyea’s fourth shot at winning Munster since their maiden county title in 2016, and so far they only managed it on the first attempt. They lost the resultant final to Cuala of Dublin in 2017, with a side that will contain a lot of the players who will start against the Barr’s on Sunday. It is safe to say that the Clare side have the edge on this young Barrs side in the experience stakes anyway. Coming up against such a seasoned side as Ballyea will be a huge test for St Finbarr’s.

Clare and Ballyea wizard Tony Kelly. Picture: INPHO/Tom Maher
Clare and Ballyea wizard Tony Kelly. Picture: INPHO/Tom Maher

Limerick champions Na Piarsaigh (All-Ireland champions in 2016 and four-time Munster champions since 2011) play current All-Ireland champions Ballygunner in the other semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds on the same day, meaning the winner in Ennis is guaranteed to go into the Munster final as the underdog, but anything can happen when hurling this deep into the year.

In what has already been a historic year for the Barrs, qualifying for the Munster final would be a fantastic way to end the year.

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