The LIT Gaelic Grounds will host a fascinating All-Ireland senior club hurling semi-final this Sunday afternoon as St Thomas’ bid to reach a third final in eight spectacular years for the club, but they will have to pull out all the stops to derail the challenge of Tipperary and Munster champions Borris-Ileigh (throw-in 4pm ).
The spectre of title holders Ballyhale Shamrocks laying waste to all before them as they aim for an eighth national title may put both of these sides firmly in the underdogs category by the final on January 19 but there is much to savour in seeing who will emerge from what should be a full-blooded encounter.
The odds compilers have it down as a virtual coin toss with St Thomas’ the very slight favourites, their greater experience at this stage of proceedings being offset by the presence of Portumna’s Johnny Kelly prowling the sideline for the seven-times Tipp champions, who upset the odds dramatically when defeating Ballygunner by a single point in the Munster final.
Kelly has never been afraid of multi-tasking when it comes to preparing teams, and his inclusion on new Offaly manager Michael Fennelly’s backroom team for 2020 is an interesting one. Borris-Ileigh are certainly singing his praises after a first county title since 1986, and their trend of coming out the right side of tough battles in recent times is worth noting.
A parish that has had to endure more than its fair share of tragic bereavements in the last year has watched on with pride as their team edged past Kilruane McDonagh’s in the county semi-final despite having a man sent-off, before defeating Kiladangan by three in a dour county final.
The excellence of Tipperary star Brendan Maher was a central theme as Cork’s Glen Rovers and Waterford’s Ballygunner were defeated in Munster, with brothers Dan and Ray McCormack also leading the way. Kildare native Conor Kenny has been a key score-getter all year, while Paddy Stapleton provides plenty of experience in the full back line.
A youthful full-forward line contains free-taker Kevin Maher, Jerry Kelly, and JD Devaney, all of whom are capable of scoring heavily and are all eligible for U-21 again next year. Goalkeeper James McCormack has made eye-catching saves when called upon, but Borris-Ileigh have only kept two clean sheets from eight outings so far, compared to St Thomas’ five from eight.
Kevin Lally will need his defensive troops to again be at their stingiest best on Sunday, but the dilemma will be how to accommodate the return of Fintan Burke, who had such an impact off the bench in an attacking role in St Thomas’ county final win over Liam Mellows.
Cathal Burke became an integral part of the St Thomas’ half back line in Burke’s absence alongside the rock-solid Shane Cooney, but he may well revert to the last line of defence on Sunday. The midfield battleground will be crucial as both David Burke and James Regan look to continue their excellent form that was rewarded recently by their inclusion on the Galway club All-Stars team.
Regan arguably outshone his colleague in the latter stages of the Galway championship, but St Thomas’ will need the Galway captain to be on top form if they are to prevail. Conor Cooney may be given the onerous task of occupying Brendan Maher on the ’40 to allow Darragh and Eanna Burke concentrate on their own game.
Whatever about the tactical aspects, this game could well go down to the wire where heart and courage become a vital attribute, and neither side will be lacking in that department. It is astonishing that Borris-Ileigh were the last Tipperary club to win the All-Ireland club title back in 1987, but St Thomas’ are tipped to extend that drought, albeit they may need extra-time to do so.