No where to hide as senior hurling title race resumesOctober 11, 2012 - 7:00am
AFTER a progressive Summer on the inter-county scene, the Salthill Hotel senior hurling championship resumes with some exciting quarter-final fixtures down for decision this weekend.
To the fore has to be the meeting of Loughrea and Mullagh at Duggan Park, Ballinasloe on Saturday (3pm). Aside from the fact that there is quality in both sides, this will be the first championship meeting between them since their controversial semi-final joust in 2009.
On that occasion, Mullagh lost by a point after referee Christy Helebert adjudged that full-back Alan Gaynor had thrown the ball as he broke his way out of defence. Ironically, many spectators felt he had been fouled as he gathered possession and was entitled to a free out.
The fall-out in the aftermath of that game – Helebert was subsequently abused and accosted after the final whistle – caused untold acrimony in local GAA circles and against such a backdrop, the two sides will meet again this Saturday.
In any event, Mullagh will be hoping to shed their ‘bridesmaid’ tag having qualified for the knockout stages seven times – with the exception of 2008 when they found themselves in relegation – since 2005.
Of their previous six quarter-final appearances, they have won just two and, to add further intrigue to their impending quarter-final showdown with Loughrea, it was the Town who defeated them in both of those semi-finals.
In the other quarter-final at Duggan Park on Saturday, holders Gort will be favoured to edge beyond Padraig Pearses, who really should have accounted for the county champions when they met in the group stages earlier in the campaign.
Elsewhere, City outfit Castlegar have a difficult assignment against a star-studded St. Thomas’ side when they meet at Kenny Park, Athenry on Sunday (3pm). This is the curtain-raiser to the Portumna and Turloughmore clash at 4:30pm and this, potentially, should also be a rousing affair.
There is also action in the intermediate hurling championship as Kilconieron and Killimordaly meet in the first of two quarter-finals in Loughrea on Sunday (12noon). 2011 intermediate league champions Rahoon/Newcastle clash with Killimor in the other equally attractive quarter-final fixture at the same venue at 1:30pm.
Loughrea v Mullagh
(Duggan Park, Ballinasloe) 3pm
Although Loughrea full-back Damien McClearn has been nursing a back injury – an ailment which sidelined him earlier in the Summer – manager Eamonn Kelly is hopeful of having a full complement of players for this mouth-watering showdown.
So far in the championship, Loughrea have been impressive, recording victories over Athenry in the opening round and Tynagh/Abbey-Duniry and Athenry, again, in the group stages. They drew with St. Thomas’ in their final group game.
To the fore, as always, have been Johnny Maher, Johnny Coen and Johnny O’Loughlin, with Maher – who has tallied 2-24 to date – causing opposition defences all sorts of problems with his physical presence.
As for Mullagh, they well and truly put their opening round defeat to Craughwell behind them when accounting for Clarinbridge in their subsequent outing before coming through an extremely tough group which included Turloughmore, Sarsfields and Beagh.
One of the reasons for this has been the form of such players like Niall Cahalan, Finian Coone, David Glennon, Conor Dervan and Donal Reilly, all of whom have posted credible championship totals to date, and this form was further underlined when Mullagh claimed the prestigious Kilmacud Crokes Sevens title last month.
Mullagh boss Paul Finnerty, who says their controversial 2010 semi-final defeat to Loughrea has been put well and truly behind them, has injury worries over Derek Hardiman (hamstring) and Reilly (AC joint) but he can welcome back Alan Whyte after he recovered from a serious knee injury that threatened to keep him out for the year.
This, for many, is the game of the weekend and is extremely close to call. Loughrea, though, get a hesitant vote. Verdict: Loughrea.
For more, read this week's Connacht Tribune.