St Finbarr's v Ballyea: Cork clubs have just one win from last 12 Munster hurling ties

Christy O'Connor on why the Barrs could struggle with the Clare champs' experience and quality this Sunday
St Finbarr's v Ballyea: Cork clubs have just one win from last 12 Munster hurling ties

Tony Kelly of Ballyea in action against Glen Rovers players Patrick Horgan, David Dooling, David Noonan during the 2016 AIB Munster hurling final in Thurles. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

AT the final whistle of the Clare county final four weeks ago, Tony Kelly sprinted towards the North stand in Cusack Park, jumped up on the advertising hoarding, shook his fist to a huge crowd before belting the wire with his hurley and then bounding back onto the pitch to join in on the celebrations.

It's unknown what Kelly’s motivation was, whether he was reacting to the densely populated Éire Óg following in that middle section of the stand, or if Kelly was just unleashing some pent-up tension and frustration after having missed last year’s county final win through injury. 

Whatever was behind the reaction, it smacked of letting the crowd know that you write off Ballyea at your peril.

Despite being county champions and having Kelly back, serious questions were asked when Ballyea suffered a 14-point whipping from Cratloe in their last group match in August, albeit in a game that meant nothing beyond seeing who would top that group.

It was Ballyea’s first championship defeat since September 2020 but they were extremely poor that evening in Ennis. Their touch and timing was coarse. They didn’t function up front while the absence of Gary Brennan was blatantly obvious.

It didn’t look like Brennan - one of Clare’s greatest footballers - would play in 2022 but he finally came back before Ballyea played Cratloe again in the semi-final. By that stage, Ballyea had also clearly changed their style, returning to their more direct game rather than the shorter style, especially in playing out from defence, which had broken down too often in the earlier rounds, especially against Cratloe in August.

By the time the sides met again in early October, Ballyea were a different animal. Despite being reduced to 14 men after only 17 minutes, they blew Cratloe away with their intensity, physicality and controlled aggression early on.

Their performance in the final against Éire Óg was even more vintage Ballyea. Trailing by three points in the 59th minute, Ballyea landed the last four points to hunt down an Éire Óg side that looked destined for their first senior championship in 32 years.

Ballyea don’t do panic, similar to their previous three final victories in 2016, 2018 and 2021 when coming from behind late on to snatch victory. When the pressure was really on four weeks ago, Ballyea knew deep down that they would grind it out.

GOLDEN

Their emergence as such a force in Clare is all the more impressive again considering they had never even won a county title prior to 2016. Yet a golden generation, inspired by Kelly, has transformed the culture of Clare club hurling.

One of only three clubs west of Ennis to have won county senior titles in the competition’s 139-year history, Ballyea have dominated Clare in the last seven seasons in a way nobody could have envisaged in such a competitive club championship.

They have been outstanding but the only stain on Ballyea’s copybook was last year’s Munster club quarter-final when they were schooled by Ballygunner. The final winning margin was 17 points but Ballyea added a false layer of makeup to that final complexion with a couple of late goals.

It could have been even uglier for Ballyea. Ballygunner only had a 56% conversion rate from 41 shots. They could have had three more goals only for three excellent saves from Ballyea goalkeeper Barry Coote.

Ballyea seriously underperformed but they were even more disappointed again given their recent history and quality of performance in Munster; they won the 2016 title, defeating Glen Rovers in the final, while they lost an epic match to Ballygunner in Walsh Park in 2018. Ballygunner needed a goal with the last play in normal time to take the match to extra time. And Ballygunner went on to win the final.

When Ballyea take on St Finbarr’s in Sunday’s Munster semi-final, last year’s poor defeat to Ballygunner will be on their minds. Having Kelly back transforms Ballyea into a completely different team but they also have that experience in Munster, which is something this Barrs side doesn’t.

 Ben Cunningham in action for the Barrs in driving rain against Blackrock. Picture: Larry Cummins
Ben Cunningham in action for the Barrs in driving rain against Blackrock. Picture: Larry Cummins

The provincial record of Cork clubs in Munster has been horrendous over the last 11 years, with just one win from 12 games. Glen Rovers’ semi-final victory against Patrickswell in 2016 was the only game a Cork club won in that time – and the Glen were well beaten by Ballyea in the final.

All of that stuff is irrelevant to the Barrs, not just because they have a winning tradition in the competition (even if the club’s last five appearances in Munster were winless), but because this side have been creating their own history throughout 2022.

The Barrs have been steadily improving and building momentum since their second group game against Blackrock. 

A young team has evolved, grown and developed but this will be the biggest test yet of this squad, especially having to go away to Ennis to take on a seasoned outfit in this competition.

Kelly is obviously their standout player but Ballyea have hardened warriors, and quality, all over the field. Jack Browne is their leader at the back but Paul Flanagan was outstanding for Clare this year. In the Clare semi-final, Flanagan restricted Rian Considine - who had 4-30 clocked before that game - to a single point from play. Shane O’Donnell was untouchable coming into the final but Flanagan held him scoreless.

The manner of last year’s defeat to Ballygunner cut deep and Ballyea are more pumped than ever now to prove a point. And the Barrs will have to meet that force head-on.

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