Sunday’s County Final has more at stake than the title of champions, the ending of a famine or the Seán Robbins trophy. For the winners, whichever of the pair that is, will be best placed to dominate Offaly club hurling for the remainder of the decade.
St Rynagh’s, as everyone knows, have been knocking on the championship door since the decade began. To look at their Final prospects, we need look back 13 months, to 2015’s semi-final win over Kilcormac-Kiloughey. That day St Rynagh’s gave almost a perfect hurling performance – everything you want to see from a team, yet the vintage semi-final was left behind them and they flopped in the subsequent Final.
We can expect that their focus will be so much different this time around. Look at the contrast – last year the Final team picked itself, and deep down there probably was a train of thought that the performance, and the result, would look after itself.
Imagine the focus now. Competition for places, with any number up to four changes likely. Management have no sacred cows either, witness it was Pat Camon who was withdrawn to make way for Conor Hernon as the semi-final appeared to be slipping from them with each passnng second-half minute.
Conor Hernon’s playmaking had a major role in turning that semi-final tide Shannonside. It was he who got on the ball on the right side of their half-back line, who played the first pass which brought Garry Conneely into the game and the passing game began to move. Those critics of said passing game would do well to note how instrumental their favoured gameplan was in the semi-final recovery. And building from the half-back line might be the best plan to bypassing Birr’s excellent half-back line.
Stephen Quirke too has to start. You can’t have enough scoring threats, and while St Rynagh’s have a hardworking forward line, and the Birr rearguard will not readily clear the ball in the face of Seán Dolan, Mattie Maloney and Niall Wynne, without the younger Quirke, it is hard to see where the scores will come from.
Stephen Wynne too should start. Different game though, and while his roving role was best suited to keeping Joe Brady away from the D’s edge last year, it might suit Rynagh’s to keep Dylan Hayden pinned back behind the ’45. Freetaking will also be an issue, and while having a freetaker who will score six out of first-half six is one thing, your freetaker needs to be the man who will nail the pressure free at the end, the one you need to save the game.
Inconsistency has been St Rynagh’s hallmark since the decade began, following up a great performance with a mediocre one (item: last year’s semi-final and Final), or finding those two spectrums in the one match, as they did most recently.
Birr, for their part, have been consistent. Solid, unspectacular, but getting the results, getting the performances. And the consistent performances have come from a consistent team selection. Seven of them have started all matches, five more have started six games, while three more have started five times. Colm Mulrooney, Conor O’Callaghan and Rory Hanniffy have started in the half-forward line in six of their seven matches to date. Of the 24 players used to date, four have made just a single substitute’s appearance. I was surprised Brendan Murphy didn’t start the semi-final in what was a rare tactical switch that didn’t involve an injury or a player returning from injury.
The half-back line, naturally, is Birr’s rock. Seán Ryan has been spectacular in the air or on the ground. Brian Watkins hurls much more off the front foot than he used to, and Birr are much the better for it. The triumvirate around the square (Mullins, Verney and Cleary) have been superb.
The jewel in the crown though is Emmet Nolan. Nolan has had a great year, and has scored 2-24 from play for his club. Talented, and mobile, capable of scoring freely, and who can exploit space in front and behind him. Coping with the U21 star will have occupied St Rynagh’s minds for the last three weeks. Vital that St Rynagh’s get their defence organised. Dermot Shortt will not stand on ceremony, though it will take a performance from the St Rynagh’s defence as a unit to close out the threat. That will involve Aidan Treacy dropping deep to offer extra protection, and sealing off that space between the D and the 45 where Nolan likes to roam. What, then, if Birr were to put someone like Rory Hanniffy to centre half-forward, someone who simply couldn’t be left unattended?
St Rynagh’s might also delegate Ben Conneely to man mark Nolan. No occasion is too big for the young Banagher man, who scored a superb goal in last year’s final, and last July turned in an exhibition of manmarking in the U21 Leinster final. And with the need to create a berth for Conor Hernon around right half-back, moving Conneely to full-back while relocating Dermot Shortt to corner-back to oppose Brendan Murphy, wouldn’t be daft at all.
Final quarter, the final in the melting pot, and selectors turn to their bench for gamebreakers. Last day, St Rynagh’s could call on four who played a massive part in their path to the final. And while a number of that quartet will start, Rynagh’s could still have quite a measure of pace and scoring capability in reserve. Ger Scales, Paul Quirke and Ronan Hughes would still make an impact off the bench. In the green and red corner it really is difficult to see where a game breaker would come from.
Brian Mullins and Barry Whelahan first played Senior for Birr in 1996. This is their 21st season hurling Senior for Birr which is an outstanding record of longevity and of service to their club, when both could have walked away a few years ago.
A new era will dawn for Sunday's winners. Birr look short of options, though that didn't hinder Coolderry last year. Though under pressure (and there's nothing new there) a focussed St Rynagh's look set to deliver on their potential, perhaps with a little help off the bench. Rynagh's then, something like 2-12 to 1-13 or thereabouts.
Pat Donegan. Signed out of respect for players and all involved with Offaly.