There’s only one show in town for die-hard hurling fans on Sunday as two giants of the club game go head-to-head in the AIB All-Ireland Hurling Senior Club Championship semi-final with throw-in at Croke Park at 3.30pm (Live on KCLR).
It promises to be a game for the ages as both sides lock horns for the first time since Ballygunner were crowned All-Ireland champions earlier this year thanks to a last-minute Harry Ruddle goal that left the Shamrocks’ hopes of a third consecutive title in tatters.
However, it is in no way the only sporting event of note on Sunday.
Throngs of sports fans across the country will be conflicted as the FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and France kicks off at 3pm on the same day.
While some will look forward to one and won’t have any interest in the other, there are a significant number of people who will want to witness both.
Speaking to KCLR’s Scoreline about the contentious decision to place the last-four tie at the same time as the World Cup decider, two-time All-Ireland winner Michael Walsh opined that it was the wrong decision.
“It shouldn’t be on at the same time as the World Cup final. Even if you aren’t a soccer fan, the World Cup grabs your attention. It has been a great tournament and we’ve seen players like Pele and Maradona in the past and now we get to see Messi,” said Dicksboro manager Walsh.
“What he has been doing is phenomenal and everyone deserves the opportunity to see both games. The players won’t care about it too much, but it’s just a pity that people can’t take in both games.”
The former Kilkenny goalkeeper was joined by his old intercounty teammate Adrian Ronan to look ahead to Sunday’s semi-final.
From using the All-Ireland final defeat as a motivational factor to the need to put in their best performance of the season, the Kilkenny legends touched on what may well prove to be the decisive factors.
Walsh began: “It’s going to be a huge game and there’s a massive interest from both counties and both clubs. It’s one of those mouth-watering ties that don’t come around too often.
“They’re in a very unusual scenario because they’re going into this game as underdogs. In every match that they’ve had to date, they have been the favourites. Are Ballyhale Shamrocks better than they were last year? I think they are, and you have to give huge credit to Pat Hoban and his management team for bringing them up to another level.”
Ronan explained: “They haven’t struggled as badly in Kilkenny and Leinster this year like they did last year. The only big worry is that they have not put in a performance across the full hour of a match.
“They’ve either played well in the first or second half and have lacked that consistency. They can’t afford for that to happen against Ballygunner because they will be ruthless and punish any slackness.”
Walsh believes that the Shamrocks will not be lacking in self-belief.
“Ballygunner wouldn’t be favourites in my eyes. Some people think they are but I wouldn’t agree with that point of view.
“The defeat in the All-Ireland final earlier this year will be the driving force for the Shamrocks on Sunday. There’s a lot of pain and anger attached to that game, and they will do everything they can to avoid that happening again.
He also commented on the perceived shortage in players that Pat Hoban has at his disposal outside of the starting line-up.
“I think 17 or 18 players is enough on the club side of things. A lot was made of the fact that the Shamrocks didn’t make a substitute in the Leinster final against Kilmacud Crokes, but Ballygunner usually don’t look to their own bench until the game enters the 50th minute mark so Pat Hoban won’t be too concerned with a supposes lack of squad depth.”
Graigue Ballycallan clubman Ronan highlighted a crucial component for both teams.
“The short puckout has been used well by the Shamrocks. Ballygunner use it as well and it will be very interesting to see how both sides go about defending the puckout.
“I think both goalkeepers, (Dean Mason for Ballyhale Shamrocks and Stephen O’Keeffe for Ballygunner) could be the key. There’s a lot of talk about the scoring power in both forward lines but Mason and O’Keeffe are imperative to their teams and may be the difference makers.”
“The Shamrocks won’t change their style just because other people think they’re underdogs. They’ll play their normal game, and you can tell that they’re relishing this challenge.
“They love to have an angle to motivate them, and the defeat last year is the angle they’ll be using here. Nobody involved with the Shamrocks will feel that Ballygunner are the favourites and that’s the way they’ve always been,” Walsh explained.
Ronan continued: “Ballyhale Shamrocks won’t be worrying about the opposition. It’s not arrogance. it’s just a great belief in themselves and they know that if they turn up, they can win the game.
“The important thing is that there are not prolonged bad spells for them. If Ballygunner are on top, it can’t last any longer than a small portion in the game or they will punish them heavily.”
They both agreed on who will be advancing to the final.
“It will be a very close game. It will the Shamrocks’ biggest ask of the year, and this is the best team they have met since the All-Ireland final against the same team. They have to be at full tilt, but if they are, I think they’ll just about edge it out,” Ronan said.
Walsh predicted: “I think Ballyhale Shamrocks will put in their best performance of the year, and they’ll be in the final in the New Year.”