All eyes will be on UPMC Nowlan Park on Sunday when Ballyhale Shamrocks take on O’Loughlin Gaels in the St. Canice’s Credit Union Senior Hurling Championship County Final. (Throw-in 1.30pm, full live commentary on KCLR).
O’Loughlin Gaels find themselves in the decider for the first time since 2016 after impressive championship displays against Rower-Inistioge, Mullinavat and Tullaroan respectively.
For Ballyhale Shamrocks, it is a fourth consecutive appearance in the showpiece event as they go in search of a fourth title in as many years.
It seems almost routine for the hyper-successful Shamrocks to go the whole way in Kilkenny each year recently.
However, their early season form, which included league defeats against Bennettsbridge and James Stephens raised some question marks about how far they could go in 2021.
Those questions were well and truly answered come championship time as they defeated the two aforementioned teams following a first round victory against Graigue Ballycallan.
Shamrocks manager James O’Connor was never worried about his team’s credentials despite the disappointing start.
Speaking to KCLR’s Scoreline at the weekend, O’Connor said: “At the start of the year we had a number of injuries and that may be a reason for our poor start.
“But there has been steady improvement since then so I’m happy with how the team has progressed in the championship.”
O’Connor will be hoping to lead his team to a second county final victory in his second year in charge. An impressive start to life in management with the 2020 All-Ireland champions, but he apportions the success that he has achieved to the players.
“The one thing that I would say about the Shamrocks is that there is accountability amongst the players and that is something that every manager out there would be delighted to have.
“They’re a very grounded bunch and no fella gets carried away with what they do because they know that somebody else in the panel has probably done it umpteen times before.”
O’Connor, who has had previous stints managing in Waterford and Cork, also spoke about the “great responsibility” that comes with managing a club with the stature and history of the Shamrocks.
“It’s a great responsibility to be the manager of this club. I came in last year and only knew the club by reputation.
“From the start I realised that these guys have a lot of intent and hunger in everything that they do.
“There’s a perception out there that with a few retirements and Henry Shefflin leaving that we may be a bit vulnerable. But that has drove on the players.”
The winners of Sunday’s match will meet Carlow county champions Mount Leinster Rangers in the first round of the Leinster championship.
The provincial competitions did not go ahead last year due to the pandemic. With that in mind, the Shamrocks could be forgiven for looking beyond the county final.
Their manager refused to look ahead of the task at hand against an in-form O’Loughlin Gaels side, however.
“Winning county titles is a priority and anything that comes after that is a bonus. That’s something that rings through around the club and it’s what makes it so special.
“They’re a proud bunch of players and their recent success has only made them want to win more and more. We’re fully concentrated on this game. It’s our most important of the year.”
He claims that performances are insignificant at this stage of the season.
“Championship is all about getting over the line, particularly a final.
“We would all love to have these classics that we could talk about years down the line but ultimately you have to get the win and that’s what we will be hoping to do and will be set up to do on Sunday,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor finally drew reference to the important combination of both experience and hunger.
“It makes it a bit easier to have a team full of experience. When you know what it takes to win county championships.
“It’s a big advantage as a manager and I certainly think that it has given us an extra edge in recent times. Having said that, experience is useless without hunger, and these lads have that in abundance.”