For only the ninth time in the history of the competition, the finalists from a year ago will go head-to-head for the second consecutive year in the Galway senior hurling final as St Thomas and Liam Mellows renew acquaintances in Pearse Stadium on Sunday (2.30pm ).
The last time such a scenario occurred was in 2006 when Loughrea turned the tables on Portumna after suffering a loss a year earlier. Liam Mellows are back in the decider for a third successive year, but take on a St Thomas side that lowered their flag in 2018 and has never suffered a defeat in three previous county final appearances this decade.
It is uncharted territory, though, for the Peterswell-Kilchreest men as they bid to retain the Tom Callanan Cup for the first time, after suffering defeat in the All-Ireland club final last March. Of the eight other Galway teams to have lost in that final, only Athenry in 1988 were able to regroup in similar fashion.
Goals by Darragh Burke and Conor Cooney were decisive in last year’s decider as St Thomas ran out comfortable 2-13 to 0-10 winners, but Liam Mellows did gain a small form of revenge in the first round of this year’s group stage with a 1-17 to 0-14 victory in Athenry in April.
A loss for Louis Mulqueen’s side against Turloughmore next time out, though, made their following games against Portumna and Tommy Larkins must-win and the consistent scoring exploits of Tadhg Haran was key in making that happen ahead of a derby clash with Castlegar on the final day of group action.
Riding their luck
St Thomas, meanwhile, licked their wounds before hammering Tommy Larkins in their second outing, as Oisín Flannery made his first scoring contribution at senior level. Both Castlegar and Portumna were brushed aside with relative ease in August, before a low-scoring draw with Turloughmore left Kevin Lally’s side on seven points.
That proved enough, though, for a quarter final berth, as Castlegar dramatically overhauled Liam Mellows late on to push them down to third place in group one. Conor Kavanagh began his rich run of goal-scoring form as Oranmore-Maree were outclassed in the preliminary quarter-final, and he netted again as Sarsfields were thumped in the quarter finals.
St Thomas rode their luck somewhat in overcoming Tommy Larkins in the last eight as Darragh Burke’s excellent free-taking helped them over the line, but they were back to something like their free-flowing best when overpowering Turloughmore in a relatively one-sided semi-final.
Liam Mellows once more got the better of Cappataggle down the stretch in a far livelier affair, with Haran and Kavanagh yet again the key components in a thrilling 2-21 to 1-21 victory. Liam Mellows have suffered two defeats thus far yet handed their opponents their only loss of the year. An intriguing contest awaits.
Interestingly, all four substitutes who came on for Liam Mellows in last year’s final are now playing more prominent roles in this year’s campaign. Jack Forde has been a strong influence in the middle third, while the athletic Ronan Elwood has contributed 1-7 from play during the year.
Conor Elwood also left his mark on the semi-final with four important scores, while Stephen Barrett has been consistently excellent in defence as Liam Mellows' hard work at underage levels in recent years continues to bear fruit.
Aside from the introduction of Oisín Flannery, an All-Ireland minor winner in 2018, the rest of the changes to the St Thomas line-up since a year ago have been more or less enforced. Neither Kenneth nor Fintan Burke has seen action due to serious injury, but both appear close to a return to full health.
Whether they will be risked on a such a big occasion is another thing, but St Thomas’s defence has coped admirably with the loss of Fintan Burke. Cathal Burke has revelled in his new role at wing back, and they have conceded on average just over 14 points per game.
CanHaran be subdued?
With goalkeeper James Barrett in top form also, only three goals have been conceded in seven outings. That type of stinginess will always give St Thomas a chance of victory, given the range of scorers that they have, and whether they can keep Haran subdued and also not concede too many scoreable frees will be a huge factor in the eventual outcome.
When the experienced duo of James Regan and David Burke are motoring at midfield, St Thomas can become almost an unstoppable force, and how Liam Mellows match up against this pair will be interesting. David Collins switched from a nominal centre half forward role of earlier games to number six in the semi-final, but whether he will be tasked with marking Conor Cooney or Darragh Burke will be another intriguing call.
Collins was inspirational against Cappataggle and players such as Brian Leen, Sean Morrissey, and Cathal Reilly are all teak tough operators in the Mellows' rearguard. Adrian Morrissey revelled in a deeper role last time out, and St Thomas will need to be wary of his canny distribution.
St Thomas go into the contest as slight favourites, but there is very little to choose between these two sides on current form. St Thomas have had a bit to spare in each of their wins in 2012, 2016, and 2018, but do not be surprised if it takes a second day out to separate these two teams.