BY PAT DELANEY
THIS will be a championship like no other. The games this year have been given more publicity before a ball is struck in anger. Imagine RTE featuring first round club hurling and football games in their flagship news programmes.
If one is to judge by club games played in other counties over the past couple of weeks despite the hype beforehand many have been tame enough affairs.
Looking at the Laois senior hurling draws it is hard to look beyond the big four, or is that being unfair on the other four.
On top we have champions Rathdowney/Errill. Then we have Borris/Kilcotton, champions three years ago beating the afore mentioned after a replay.
Then there is Clough/Ballacolla who may have to go back further than the other three for their last title. It is all of six years since Darren Maher lifted the cup but they have contested a final since and they still bemoan the fact that the hawk eye was not in operation for that outrageous strike by Willie Hyland that would have secured a draw.
Camross make up the top four and they have had some great days at MV Hire O’Moore Park, more than most in fact. But their last appearance will haunt them until they get back there again and wipe away the memory with a knock out win.
Speaking of titles, not since Castletown relinquished their vice like grip 15 years ago has anyone except the big four shared in the celebrations. The titles rested in Rathdowney/Errill in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2019; Camross 2007, 2013, 2017 and 2018; Clough/Ballacolla 2009, 2011 and 2015; and Borris/Kilcotton 2016.
Is there a Leeds or Liverpool among the bottom four. Believe it or not, the last time Leeds were playing at the highest level Castletown were champions of the O’Moore County. Can any of the other three prove the pundits wrong and become one hit wonders too?
Lets start with the only one of the four to win a title, Castletown. They have continued to give it their all but despite having some wonderful underage talent they have not contested a semi-final. They were relegated a few years ago but bounced back and that year in the lower tier did them very little harm.
They still have a few fine individuals and last year played some great football just falling short at the final fence. We know that is a different ball game but it showed in their fitness and their determination was evident, and that was the hallmark of their great years in hurling from 1995 to 2005.
They blew Camross away two years ago in the opening round but later had to survive a relegation battle. Last year they tested Rathdowney/Errill for a while but faded away. They will not fear anybody this year but it is hard to see them get the better of the big two in their group.
But last year they ran Camross very close in the quarter-final and how close they went afterwards, so Castletown not too far off.
There might be a more level playing pitch this year because all clubs are in a similar position. None of them have been affected by hurling hard games in the national league or championship. However the one change that will affect the bottom four is that there is no quarter-final. Not much attention was paid to the decision but all four would have been contenders and it would have kept them hurling longer and particularly Castletown are capable of an upset any year.
Abbeyleix reached a semi-final three years ago but, as is the case with Castletown, the team they beat went on to win the title. It’s all of 40 years since their only other semi-final apart from that dramatic battle with Rathdowney/Errill six years ago. They had one foot in the final until all the Kings men intervened.
While they hurled well last year their only win was the relegation final against Portlaoise in a down pour. Unfortunately they could be scrapping again this year.
Ballinakill still bemoan their failure three years ago when they had Borris/Kilcotton on the rack on three occasions but could not deliver the killer blow. Their conquerors went on to claim the title. Last year they reached the knock out stages but were well off the mark.
The bottom line is that it is unlikely that either of this pair can lower the colours of the champions Rathdowney/Errill, but the clash of Castletown and their Aghaboe neighbours has always produced riveting entertainment.
Clough/Ballacolla will be hurting after their tame exit semi-final last year. They have a new man at the helm.
Canice Coonan had brought them to a league final, at the interval they were comfortably ahead but then surrendered meekly. In the championship got some measure of compensation beating Abbeyleix, then Borris/Kilcotton by four points and Camross by eight points but in the semi-final against Borris/Kilcotton they gave one of their poorest displays in many years eventually losing by seven points.
Those two losses last year might provide the incentive to go one better this year. They will probably finish second in the group and that will see them in the same position. They have some very talented players with youth on their side.
The champions got back to the top last year achieving two things en-route to their sixth crown. First they got revenge for defeat in controversial circumstances the previous year and in the final wiped away the bitter memories of the final of two years earlier after they contributed to two magnificent spectacles.
Looking at the other perceived top four, the champions Rathdowney/Errill and Camross between them share ten titles in 14 years. The two are always on the top of every team’s greatest fear and with their record why not.
Rathdowney/Errill have lost finals in ‘16 and ‘18 and lost quarter-finals in ’17 and ’19, but seldom fail to reach the last four. Last year they scored a late winner in the semi-final. The final with Borris/Kilcotton was not near as exciting but the title headed back across the Erkina for the first time since beating Camross in 2014.
Already they will be considered favourites to put titles back to back, something they have not managed in 15 years.
Their biggest challenge in the group is likely the arch rivals the other side of the river. Castletown will challenge but it is hard to look past the two neighbours with the champions going to the top of the table facing the runners up of the other group.
Camross and Borris/Kilcotton have been recent rivals but it took until last year before the latter claimed bragging rights and it paid dividends they went direct to the semi-final. They will be disappointed with their performance in the final and will be determined to top the group, although the extra game last year was to their benefit.
They have more youth than many and will have learned. Their clash with Camross will be eagerly awaited and they should put victories back to back. They welcome home Ciaran Comerford from the land of the sheep stealers and he has agreed to manage on home ground. He rose to fame a few years ago when he was promoted manager in the absence of Cheddar, albeit just for one hour.
Now we come to last year’s intermediate champions, Rosenallis. They will not need me to remind them of their last senior debut which was 30 years ago. Having swept aside Ratheniska in the intermediate final they faced their neighbours Camross in the opening round in Mountmellick. Camross were still carrying bruises from the infamous county final replay of ‘89 and had to find seven new players for the first round. PJ Cuddy was handed the task of resurrecting a team from the embers of that county final defeat.
Rosenallis expected a backlash, but it was not a backlash, it was a massacre, the final score Camross 9-7 Rosenallis 2-5. Camross then ironically faced Borris Gaels (now Borris/Kilcotton) in the quarter-final on the night the late Jack Charlton and Ireland lost to a Schillachi goal for Italy in the World Cup quarter-final.
In what was the game of the championship Camross just prevailed 2-15 to 2-14. They kept winning until Glenmore denied them in the Leinster final.
Rosenallis also kept going and a year later shocked Rathdowney in the opening round.
Can Rosenallis get the better of either of the big two, unlikely, but not impossible. They played some delightful hurling last year stunning The Harps in yet another final. It was Tommy Walsh and Tullaroan who halted their train but by then they were hunting in two provincial campaigns. It caught up with them but now they are the only club challenging at senior level in both codes. We wish them well but they have a difficult task.