*Pearse Lillis & Ballyea take on Kilmaley. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

The Clare Senior Hurling Championships could be completely behind closed doors for the very first time but that unprecedented outcome shouldn’t take from the quality and intensity of fare on offer writes Eoin Brennan who looks ahead to this weekend’s intriguing knock-out quartet of senior hurling championship matches.

Broadford v Sixmilebridge @ Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 4.45pm
The roots run deep but a rare derby litmus test should finally provide some telling answers regarding Broadford and Sixmilebridge’s current status.

Of course, being fundamentally a clash of the 2019 senior and intermediate champions, Sixmilebridge will carry the clear favourites tag, especially as they’ve expertly soared to four of the last seven senior crowns.

However, while their two year charge to Canon Hamilton success has been remarkable (2013, ’15, ’17, ’19), title defences certainly haven’t been the ‘Bridge’s speciality. They failed to reach the business ends in 2014 and’16 and despite encouraging victories over Clonlara and Crusheen, their 2018 equivalent ended at the quarter-final hurdle to neighbours Cratloe.

Garneyside revenge was exacted in last October’s County Final but now it’s another neighbour that are threatening to derail the ‘Bridge’s hopes of a first title retention in 27 years.

Broadford’s relieving rise from intermediate was long overdue but ironically it was Sixmilebridge’s second team that came closest to halting the eventual champions at the last eight stage when embroiled in the first ever championship match in the county to be decided by penalties.

That pattern was eerily similar to Broadford and Sixmilebridge’s last senior championship meeting in 2009 that saw Sixmilebridge win the group battle by 1-16 to 0-14 in Cusack Park only to lose the war as it was Broadford that advanced to the last eight where they drew with eventual champions Cratloe before being humbled in the replay.

After all, that derby came on 12 months after Broadford came up from intermediate level after overcoming Sixmilebridge’s second string in the decider. That 2008 final saw Broadford manager Danny Chaplin face his native club and more pertinently his younger brother Christy who was Sixmilebridge’s captain. In addition, Davy Fitzgerald had also helped Broadford get to that final albeit that he understandably bowed out before the decider.

The Wexford manager will be trying to plot Broadford’s downfall this time around but the Chaplin connection has only grown as Danny’s son Darren has since joined 2008 intermediate winning brothers Cathal and Craig in Broadford’s line-up.

Indeed, Broadford’s balance throughout their side is a noteworthy part of why they’re back in the last eight at the first attempt as having been essentially a senior team stuck at intermediate level, their squad development throughout their five year purgatory means that there are no weak links.

A full-forward unit of Stiofan McMahon, Shane Taylor and Donie Whelan, while not firing on all cylinders against Clonlara, are among the most lethal in the county when they click while Diarmuid Moloney’s unerring placed balls will be required once more against the best freetaker so far in this year’s championship, Alex Morey.

Indeed, Morey’s return last year added an extra dimension to Sixmilebridge’s latest triumph but having accounted for two thirds of the champions’ scores so far in 2020, they will require others to stand up in the scoring stakes.

Sixmilebridge’s ability to grind out results while not playing champagne hurling is still very evident but with no goals so far, a timely statement of intent would certainly do wonders for their bid for the promised land in a title defence season.

If anything, their back-line, led superbly by Seadna Morey, have been the ones to miserly excel so far. But while that was sufficient to hold off Éire Óg and Whitegate, the fact that this is firmly bonus territory for a buoyant Broadford makes them an even more dangerous opponent.

The only chink in Broadford’s armoury so far is that they have faded in the final quarter against neighbours O’Callaghan’s Mills and Clonlara.

And if that pattern is replicated, Sixmilebridge will punish royally. Just ask Inagh-Kilnamona who still have nightmares over the eight point swing in last year’s semi-final crescendo.
Verdict: Sixmilebridge

Ballyea v Kilmaley @ Cusack Park Ennis, Saturday 6.30pm
While It’s potentially Ballyea’s turn in their biennial swapping of the Canon Hamilton with Sixmilebridge, they definitely don’t require any extra motivation ahead of their toughest evaluation to date.

Yes, there’s the obvious derby factor but it’s much more to do with the manner of their exit to Kilmaley at the same stage in the 2015 equivalent. After all, beating a neighbour once is difficult enough without having to face the same scorned opponent again in the next round, a challenge that Ballyea had to endure that season.

It’s one of the principle reasons why that rule was subsequently changed and repeat pairings avoided albeit that the dreaded safety net of ‘where possible’ has now also become part of Clare GAA’s lexicon.

Following an opening victory over defending champions Cratloe, Ballyea’s confidence only soared further when an umpteenth Tony Kelly masterclass of 12 points eased them to a 0-21 to 1-14 victory over Kilmaley to book their place in the quarter-finals.

Ken Kennedy’s 53rd minute goal had lessened the damage but Kilmaley were sorely second best. Thankfully owever, they got the opportunity to remedy that when bouncing back to winning ways against another neighbour Inagh-Kilnamona a fortnight later.

So when Kilmaley drew Ballyea in the quarter-finals, revenge was foremost in their minds. What followed would be arguably the game of the 2015 championship, an 80 minute rollercoaster complete with a dramatic plot twist at the death as it was Kilmaley who ravenously snatching the whip hand this time around.

In contrast, Ballyea were ruffled by Kilmaley’s pack hunting but while they fired 17 wides, the Bally Boys did manage to keep pace as Tony Kelly’s 50th minute goaled penalty finally cancelled out Mikey O’Neill’s solo first half effort at 1-11 apiece while deep into injury-time a Cian Moloney free had to force extra-time following another Kelly intervention at 1-13 to 1-13.

With Ballyea gathering momentum into the additional periods, a goal through substitute David Egan put them on the brink of a famous success. But despite holding a 2-17 to 1-18 advantage by the 80 minute mark, Ballyea would be struck with the ultimate sucker-punch as Aidan McGuane’s hopeful delivery broke perfectly for Kilmaley substitute Eamonn Bracken to sensationally bat to the net and book his side’s place in the last four for the first time since 2011.

Considering that Kilmaley were minus the services of Conor Cleary, Ken Kennedy and Colin McGuane, it simply re-emphasised the fact that the right motivation and edge is a potent ingredient and that’s something that Ballyea should possess this time around.

While they haven’t been fully tested yet, having played in second gear against Crusheen and Clooney-Quin, they unquestionably have the extra gears in their locker, with a revolving top eight proving nigh impossible to constantly shadow Tony Kelly, Niall Deasy and Gary Brennan.

Kilmaley on the other hand, have been consistently inconsistent within matches as they recovered from a poor start against Cratloe to almost reel them in later on. While in contrast, they hit the ground running against Wolfe Tones with goals through Tom O’Rourke and Daire Keane inside eight minutes but due to regular lapses, still found it difficult to put away their opponents with any degree of comfort.

Uncertainty over their back seven won’t help their cause either as they will be without injured goalkeeper Bryan O’Loughlin and are yet to settle on their spinal defenders. Ironing out those worrying creases is pivotal as if Aron Shanagher and Aaron Cunningham didn’t cause them enough headaches, the prospect of Kelly, Deasy and Brennan could bring on a migrane at headquarters.
Verdict: Ballyea

Inagh-Kilnamona v O’Callaghan’s Mills @ Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 3pm
First things first, hopefully someone has proactively taken action to avoid any potential kit clash as no-one wants a repeat of the opening round scenario that saw Broadford have to turn their jerseys inside out against the Mills.

While their jerseys aren’t exactly identical, the colour schemes are similar enough to mistake an opponent for a team-mate when under pressure while their shorts and socks are the same too.

A little housekeeping like that would have been recommended for Inagh-Kilnamona and O’Callaghan’s Mills Senior B decider in 2017 that saw the latter prevail by 3-16 to 1-15.

Having played with the conditions, the Mills led by six at the break but it didn’t seem enough to be able to hold out. That theory looked to be accurate as Inagh-Kilnamona slashed the deficit to the minimum on the restart but the dismissal of David Fitzgerald allied to goals from Colin Crehan and Sean Cotter evetually swung the pendulum decisively back in the Mills’ favour.

Afterwards in his presentation speech, O’Callaghan’s Mills native and County Board Chairman Joe Cooney hinted that bigger honours could be around the corner and he wasn’t too far off the mark as only 12 months later, the Mills reached a first senior semi-final in 21 years only to be halted by Ballyea.

The eventual champions also put paid to Inagh-Kilnamona’s hopes in Fergal Hegarty’s first year in charge of his native side at the quarter-final stage but they did emulate the Mills’ penultimate stage feat in 2019 before being agonisingly pipped at the post by Sixmilebridge.

O’Callaghan’s Mills meanwhile, befitting the classic ‘rise fall return’ movie structure, went in the opposite direction and had to contend with an unwanted relegation derby final with Tulla before bounding back to the right side of the championship this year.

A gritty opening victory over Broadford was bolstered by a hugely impressive clinical performance against another of last year’s semi-finalists Crusheen by 3-17 to 0-17 which dictates a 50/50 call for their quarter-final showdown with Inagh-Kilnamona.

The Combo’s evolution is ongoing as while they blew away Clooney-Quin in the opening half of their Round 1 tie, they took their foot off the gas in the second half and had similar lapses against Newmarket last time out. That early alarm call could be hugely beneficial for Inagh-Kilnanona who were clearly a step ahead of both previous opponents but from here on in, will inevitably come up against more potent forces.

More leadership is required than just the usual suspects of Aidan McCarthy and Kevin Hehir if they are to make the leap from potential to perrennial contenders. If that jump falls short though, one can be certain that a hungry O’Callaghan’s Mills will take full advantage, just as they did to blitz Crusheen last time out thanks to nine different scorers from play.

Their spine was particularly impressive as Conor Cooney and a superb half-back unit of Patrick Donnellan, Aidan O’Gorman and Aidan Fawl expertly proved a launching pad alongside midfielder Ciaran Cooney for his young brother Gary, Colin Crehan and Bryan Donnellan to exploit.

Such a match-up of two balanced sides makes for potentially the tie of the round that considering their competition of two keen derbies between Broadford and Sixmilebridge as well as Ballyea and Kilmaley is saying something.

If both perform to their maximum, Inagh-Kilnamona might just have the x-factor to shade matters but we havent seen either side reach those snow-covered peaks, as of yet anyway.
Verdict: Inagh-Kilnamona

Round 2 Refixture
Cratloe v Éire Óg @ Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 12pm
A lot has happened in the two weeks since this potential firecracker was called off. The underlying COVID-19 threat that permeated around the county’s return to club action became an all-too clear and present danger when the virus emerged in Cratloe’s camp. Subsequently however, patience and common sense have been thankfully adhered to.

After all, by the letter of the law which was clearly stated in the ‘COVID-19 Special Regulations’ handed down by GAA Headquarters, Cratloe would have been withdrawn from all adult competitions. But instead there was collective compassion as Cratloe received the backing of the county board, clubs and in particular opponents Éire Óg.

With hopefully a clean health slate in Cratloe, this refixture is the first of a hectic schedule for them but it’s something that they have inadvertently become accustomed to over the last decade as they switch from football to hurling on a weekly basis for championship.

Health issues and the lack of collective preparation aside, that potential workload won’t weigh heavily upon them this Sunday at least as they wil be eager to get back to playing action.

That could potentially spell danger for Éire Óg who, with many of the same personnel, were sucker-punched early on against Kilmurry Ibrickane in Sunday’s senior football quarter-final and never fully recovered.

However, at this stage, Éire Óg simply need to prove to themselves that they can finally build upon their potential and challenge for the Canon as five quarter-final exits in six seasons has become a worrying stumbling block.

Their first two failed last eight attempts came against Cratloe in 2014 and ’16 when momentum appeared to be in their favour in both.

Cratloe, following back-to-back final defeats, certainly won’t be short of determination either as they look to set the record straight and finally get back to the winners enclosure for the first time since 2014.
Injuries have more than played their part so far as Cratloe have been without Cathal McInerney, Martin ‘Oige’ Murphy and Enda Boyce while David Reidy and Aaron Fitzgerald would be game-changing boosts if they expectedly return on Sunday.

Cratloe’s vast experience and winning know-how makes them understandable favourites but justifying that tag won’t be easy against a revengful Éire Óg on a day when a goal rush could be in the offing.
Verdict: Cratloe

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