THESE truly are the rarest of times. In the space of a week Carlow GAA supporters will be treated to not one but two senior club provincial finals as county champions St Mullins and Éire Óg take on the might of Ballyhale Shamrocks and Ballyboden St Enda’s respectively.
Never before in the 50-odd years of the provincial club championship have Carlow supporters enjoyed such riches. Of course, Éire Óg have been here before. Such is the weight of tradition, and the momentum that can bring, their players will fret not about togging out in Sunday week’s showpiece.
It’s the hurlers of St Mullins who have really ascended to rarefied air. Right now, Carlow clubs have a perfect record in the senior hurling club provincial final: one from one. Mount Leinster Rangers beat Oulart-The Ballagh on a brisk December afternoon in Nowlan Park six years ago: a day that will never be forgotten by the Carlow GAA people who were lucky enough to witness it.
The task facing St Mullins is altogether more difficult. Oulart were coming into that 2013 final having lost the previous three. Once Rangers showed they were ready to battle, the ghosts of previous years’ defeats reared their heads and the Wexford team were put to sleep by a Rangers team on a mission.
In contrast, St Mullins are facing an animal of a very different kind. Henry Shefflin’s Ballyhale are the reigning All-Ireland champions. The most successful team in the history of club hurling, they are aiming to become the first club to win 10 Leinster senior titles. For them, the province is not a peak, it’s base camp for a tilt at further glory in the New Year.
Of course every team has its cracks. Richie Reid, the team captain and brother of TJ, has gone to the Lebenon with the Defence Forces and will leave a potential weakness in the half-back line which the likes of Marty Kavanagh will look to exploit.
Young hurler of the year Adrain Mullen is still a doubt for Sunday’s game with a dead leg but he will likely be fit for selection. Whether he will be the flying force which made him such an important cog in Brian Cody’s machine last summer remains to be seen.
When interviewed for The Nationalist this week, St Mullins manager Niall O’Donnell put the task before them into context.
“The stones on the road know the time to beat Ballyhale is before or in the quarter-final in Kilkenny,” he says. “Once they hit the county semi-final stage you get your money on them to win the All-Ireland.”
Of course there is an element of a manager putting a little pressure on his opponents here. But it is based on more than a grain of truth.
Ballyhale didn’t shoot the lights out earlier in the summer, when their county men were away, but since they beat Clara in the Kilkenny quarter-final, they have grown into themselves and wins over O’Loughlin Gaels and James Stephens in the semi-final and final showed that they were building momentum.
Wins over Clonkill of Westmeath and St Martins of Wexford only hammer home the point that the further they go, the more formidable they become.
But it is unlikely they are as battle hardened as the men from St Mullins, tiny margins have seen them prevail against Ballinkillen, Mount Leinster Rangers, Cuala and Rathdowney-Errill in consecutive rounds of the Carlow and Leinster championships. Never have they been comfortable, never have they had the luxury of complacency.
But when a game is there to be won, they are the ones who reach out and grab it.
Ballyhale know that if they are to win this one, they will have to be at least five points up with five minutes to go.
St Mullins know all about Ballyhale’s threats. TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly scored 2-13 between them when Kilkenny beat Carlow in the Leinster championship in May. Both will be on duty for their club on Sunday.
But of course they have some threats of their own. By turns, James Doyle and Marty Kavanagh have driven them across the line in different games this year.
As Carlow intercounty players, and indeed as former IT Carlow players with plenty of Fitzgibbon Cup experience, they will be well-known to their Kilkenny counterparts too.
But there are many more strings to the St Mullins bow. Jason O’Neill and Paddy Boland have come up with important scores. Seamus Murphy and Jack Kavanagh bring a combative edge. The defence has grown in stature with each passing game.
Despite what the analysts might have you believe, this is no foregone conclusion. St Mullins travel to Portlaoise this Sunday as men on a mission.
How they would love to scale this peak. The view from the top would be wonderful.