St. Canice’s Credit Union Senior Hurling Championship Quarter-Final – Ballyhale Shamrocks vs Bennettsbridge – Sunday, 4pm, UPMC Nowlan Park
It is the undoubted tie of the round.
Three-in-a-row champions Ballyhale Shamrocks come up against their biggest threat to their unprecedented dominance of Kilkenny hurling for more than three years when they face a Bennettsbridge side who have delivered on their unfulfilled potential throughout 2021.
It’s a repeat of the best game that the league served up when both sides opened their campaigns with a 3-23 to 6-11 victory for Bennettsbridge at UPMC Nowlan Park.
The Shamrocks have recovered from that defeat with wins against Tullaroan and last weekend against Graigue Ballycallan, while Bennettsbridge’s winning run has continued as they became league champions with a 0-19 to 0-16 defeat of Clara in the final that was preceded by victories against Lisdowney and Rower-Inistioge.
That means that arguably the two best teams when every side is at their best are facing off as they are about to or are at their peak.
It’s a mouth-watering prospect that will almost certainly lead to keen eyes watching on from not just inside both clubs, or even the county, but from all four provinces as well.
The 2018 final may have come too early for Bennettsbridge as they eventually succumbed to Sunday’s opponents on a scoreline of 2-20 to 2-17.
The same venue will host Sunday’s match, but Bennettsbridge are a different team, even if many of the names are the same.
Their spine is significantly powerful, physically and in terms of their impact on games. Conor Muprhy and David Blanchfield are the glue that holds the back line together, while Jason Cleere and Kevin Blanchfield provide the perfect service for star forwards Seán Morrissey, Ciarán Brennan, Kevin Brennan and Nicky Cleere.
They scored 20 points or more in each of their group games and when they needed to quell Clara’s threat in the league final in a low-scoring game, their backs were up for the challenge as they managed to hold Clara to 0-16.
Their strength is in their entire panel, that has a healthy balance that few managers have at their disposal. If Tim Dooley can once again get it right this weekend, as he has done so since the beginning of the league, Bennettsbridge may come out on top and be on the path to turning their underage stars of yesteryear into today’s winners.
The only thing that stands in Bennettsbridge’s way are the county champions Ballyhale Shamrocks.
Should they win this year’s championship they would match the achievement of four consecutive titles that they claimed from 2006-2009.
The work done at underage levels is a source of huge credit and praise for those in charge of a club that has churned out players of the highest quality on a scale the likes of which have rarely if ever been seen before across both codes in the GAA.
They haven’t been at their best this year, but they always seem to peak when it is needed, and they will be mentally focused for this clash, something that may have been lacking in that opening round league defeat to the same opposition.
They know how much of a threat Bennettsbridge pose and a leaky defence will need to be tightened if they are to advance. They have conceded 3-23, 0-24, 2-12 and 2-20 in their four games so far. That is simply too much and while their forwards are good enough to get 30 points or more, the hope for manager James O’Connor for this weekend will be that his defence can reach their potential and in doing so, lift a very heavy burden off of their admittedly star-studded forward line.
There is no need to go through the names of their attackers, but should they come to the fore, which they invariably will when they are needed, Ballyhale Shamrocks will be hard to stop.
Bennettsbridge need to bring an intensity level and hunger of a team that will accept nothing less than victory. If they do that, and the county champions are not up to scratch from the start, they will not leave the door open for the Shamrocks to walk through like other teams have in previous years.
However, you can expect a razor sharp Ballyhale Shamrocks. And that is too much for the best teams in the country to handle 9 times out of 10.
Bennettsbridge will be hoping and believing that they can be the one team that can upset the imperious Shamrocks.
But it’s always the hope and belief that kills you with one of the greatest club sides to ever grace the game.
A titanic tussle is in store that could see both sides on the cusp of victory as the game comes towards a dramatic conclusion. However, a strength of character that is unparalleled will mean that the Shamrocks will still be standing come full-time on Sunday. But only just.
Verdict: Ballyhale Shamrocks victory