THE hurling championship season is winding down now at a rapid rate with the provincial club finals set to capture the headlines over the coming days.
Not for the first time in recent years, there will be no Cork participation in the senior final with the holders Ballygunner and Ballyea from Clare taking centre stage in Thurles tomorrow afternoon.
It’s a well-documented fact that Cork teams have not been very successful in recent times in the competition that they once dominated but to be fair, St Finbarr’s gave it one almighty lash this time in the semi-final against Ballyea, losing by the bare minimum after being reduced to 14 players after just 10 minutes.
There might be a perception that because of Cork’s non involvement in the final that the interest in the county will be minimal but one would not go along at all with that theory.
Here’s one who is looking forward very much to the collision of Ballygunner and Ballyea and also to the Leinster final between Ballyhale-Shamrocks and Kilmacud Crokes.
Genuine hurling followers will always tune in to a game when it’s live on the TV and that will again be the case this weekend.
There is huge potential in both games, for obvious reasons and because they contested last season’s All-Ireland final, the smart money will be on Ballygunner and Ballyhale to retain their titles but that is certainly no foregone conclusion.
A precedent for an upset was set in the football championship last weekend when Clonmel Commercials, after ousting Nemo Rangers in the semi-final, were eliminated by the unfancied Limerick champions, Newcastlewest.
As a result of that outcome and similar results in other provinces across all the grades, there cannot ever be complacency at this time of the year.
Hurling in the month of December can be a great leveller but unlike times past, pitches are always now in tip-top condition.
No doubt, Semple Stadium will be in pristine condition tomorrow and we should get a great game of hurling.
Ballyea are ideally situated, they are big underdogs against a Ballygunner side that really produced the goods against Na Piarsaigh in the semi-final, particularly in the second half.
That was one of the best games of the season at any level and it made for compelling viewing on TG4.
If we get more of the same tomorrow, then fasten the seat belts for another cracker.
Ballygunner are entitled to be favourites, they have a fiercely potent attack with match winners in most positions, particulary in attack when different players have come up trumps on different days, Pauric Mahony, superb the last day, Dessie Hutchinson, young Patrick Fitzgerald, Kevin Mahony among others.
There might be a belief that Ballyea are overly reliant on Tony Kelly and whilst he was well curtailed in the opening half against the ‘Barrs, thereafter he was probably the main difference between the sides.
And there is a real defiance about the Clare champions as they illustrated in the county final against Eire Og when they scored the last four points of the game from the 59th minute into injury time to win by a point.
The ‘Barrs were very hard done by in the semi-final with the early dismissal of Conor Cahalane and from a TV viewpoint, having seen it three or four times, it was a yellow card at worst.
Contrast that to what transpired in Croke Park last Sunday between Kilmacud and Carlow’s St Mullins when a very high challenge on a St Mullin’s player which resulted in a penalty being awarded merited only a yellow card.
A red card might well have been shown.
The difference between the Cahalane incident and that one was vast but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
The club championship in all the grades certainly keeps the pot boiling when the vast majority of GAA fields are closed for the season.
The Leinster final has huge potential and if both finals go ahead this weekend it will be some occasion for Kilmacud Crokes.
It is some achievement for them to be in the two provincial finals and they have just the one dual player.
They were far too strong for the Carlow team last Sunday and Ballyhale will tread warily against them.
Another very notable achievement last weekend was the victory of St Thomas’ in the Galway County final against Loughrea.
In doing so, they completed the five-in-a-row in that county and that is a remarkable achievement by any standards.
The Galway championship is always ultra-competitive, and nothing ever comes easy, and this St Thomas’ side deserve to be lauded.
Of course, Ballygunner have done nine-in-a-row in Waterford and that had to take some doing no matter what the overall standard in the county might be.
For any bunch of players to remain focused over that span of time, put in the effort year in, year out for the management is simply something else Here in Cork we have seen how difficult it is for a club side to retain the county and it has not been done very often in recent years.
What it all means now is that the remainder of the senior club championship season is brimful with potential.
Who will be crowned All-Ireland club champions in the Spring, selecting one from Ballygunner, Ballyhale, St Thomas’, Kilmacud, Ballyea and Ulster champions Slaughtneil is a tough task.
Hurling in the depths of Winer can often prove to be more exciting than what we get to view in the summer months.
Teak toughness, fierce character, adapting to the conditions of the day and a never say die attitude are just some of the traits required to extend the Winter into Spring.
Hard to look beyond Ballygunner and Ballyhale-Shamrocks to be the two that will slug it out in the end.
But there’s a lot of hurling to be played yet in a competition that certainly shortens the Winter for all of us.