Monday 27 January 2020

Frank Roche: 'Club shocks ensure Leinster still rocks'

JUGGERNAUT: Ballyhale manager Henry Shefflin. Photo: SPORTSFILE
JUGGERNAUT: Ballyhale manager Henry Shefflin. Photo: SPORTSFILE

The AIB Leinster club senior championships, both football and hurling, are a curious attraction.

The vast majority of matches will be watched by a couple of thousand hardy annuals - or less.

They're played in all kinds of weather - occasionally sun-kissed, as happened in Netwatch Cullen Park on Sunday, but more often dank and dreary.

Either way, having faced the winter elements for a couple of hours, your entire body will feel encased in a sub-zero shell as you head for the sanctuary of the car afterwards.

And yet, chances are, your frost-bitten heart could be dancing. Why? Because the Leinster club scene has a recurring capacity for romance that is rarely seen on the county stage in the same province.

But what about the joys of Wexford at the end of June, when Davy Fitz & Co delivered a first Leinster SHC title in 15 years? Correct and true; it was a day to remember, even for neutrals lucky enough to be there.


It's also the case that Leinster hurling final day has recently served up its fair quota of history (Dublin ending a 52-year famine in 2013) or shock-and-awe (Galway conquering their adopted province for the first time, in 2012, by dint of a stunning demolition of Kilkenny).

The same decade, however, has been so thoroughly dominated by the Dublin footballers that what used to be one of the biggest days on the GAA calendar has been rendered little more than a box-ticking exercise.

The last time Dublin didn't lift the Delaney Cup was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Back in 2010, the farcical decision to allow Joe Sheridan's match-winning 'try' at the death conspired to give Meath a bad karma Leinster title they would probably wish away at this stage, while robbing Louth of the ultimate fairytale ending.

So, Leinster football is what it is: a recurring inter-county landslide.

By the same token, Dublin's flagship club football champions always set out as warm provincial favourites, and for pretty obvious reasons too, given that their strike rate stands at six-out-of-nine so far this decade.

But it's never a sure thing. Even the capital's last two All-Ireland champions - St Vincent's in 2013/14 and Ballyboden St Enda's in 2015/16 - limped over the Leinster line but then won emphatically in Croke Park.

The wonderfully unpredictable thing about the club championship is that it's nearly always in a state of flux.

Great teams come every few years but usually go just as quickly … only a select few, such as Crossmaglen at the end of the last millennium, or the current trailblazers from Corofin, stick around at the summit a while longer.

Meanwhile, at provincial level, you may hail from a minnow county but if you have the right mix of talent, ambition and luck, the world can be your oyster.

Thus, the last decade of Leinster club SFC combat has given us a first ever winner from Westmeath (Garrycastle in 2011) and Longford (the most famous half-parish in Ireland, Mullinalaghta last year).

Even two Dublin heavyweights (Ballymun in 2012 and Boden three years later) were able to savour a provincial first for their own clubs.


And in hurling, the giant shadow currently cast by Ballyhale Shamrocks shouldn't disguise the fact that a staggering five clubs won their first Leinster titles in the last ten years.

They were Coolderry (2011), Kilcormac-Killoughey (2012), Mount Leinster Rangers (Carlow's first ever winners in 2013), Oulart-The Ballagh (2015, having lost four finals on the spin earlier in the decade) and Cuala (whose 2016 breakthrough ended a 37-year capital wait dating back to Crumlin in 1979).

On the weekend after next, it will be the turn of St Mullins to try and defy the odds - against Henry Shefflin's 1/33 Ballyhale juggernaut - and create another piece of Carlow history.

Unlikely? Very.

But Mullins have been the story of this championship to date, so why not try and pen one final, unexpected twist?

In the Leinster club universe, after all, fact is occasionally stranger than fiction.

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