Graigue-Ballycallan's revival continues
By Eoghan Tuohey
The presence of a Kilkenny club is not an unfamiliar sight in a Leinster hurling championship final. It is an even more common occurrence at intermediate level, with an astonishing eight different Kilkenny clubs claiming the title in the last nine years.
It comes as little surprise, then, that another club, Graigue-Ballycallan, are making their first appearance in this years’ final, where they will come up against a rejuvenated Portlaoise side, looking to create their own piece of history.
The Kilmanagh-based club have a storied past, winning a Leinster senior title in 2000, and were narrowly defeated in the All-Ireland final.
Something of a period in the doldrums has followed those dizzying heights of late, but the rural club will be looking to build on their impressive county final victory over Tullaroan, followed by Leinster championship wins over Celbridge and St. Mogue’s of Fethard. Defender Darragh Egan believes the team has shown remarkable character to find themselves in this privileged position.
“We always knew it’d be a tough game against Tullaroan, they’re a serious team with serious players, I think we were nine points down at one stage in the first half and down seven at half time, they had showed what they were capable of, but we didn’t really perform in the first half, we said it at half-time that we hadn’t started hurling at all,” Egan recalls.
“Thankfully, we managed to get a foothold in the game in the second half and we managed to gradually pull away in the last 10 minutes then.”
This victory was followed up by a three point triumph over Celbridge, and a convincing display against Wexford outfit, St. Mogue’s. Despite the final scoreline in that semi-final, this side exudes the typical Kilkenny mindset of taking nothing for granted and they insist that any signs of complacency need to be quenched immediately, and in the modern game, the performance must be relentless until the very end.
“It was a fairly tough game, I don’t think the scoreline was a fair reflection. It was a very tough first-half, at the start of the second half they got it back to within three points. We were kind of on the backfoot early on in the second half, after that we found our rhythm and we got going, our forwards did a bit of damage and we managed to put them away in the end.
“At the beginning of the year, Kilkenny was obviously the main focus, we’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves, we’re in the final now and we’re going to give it our all to win it. We’ll be fully focused on Portlaoise now before anything else.”
Despite the parish itself being rural, the hurling squad boasts impressive depth. A combination of former All-Ireland winning county players such as Eddie Brennan and James Ryall, with a plethora of Kilkenny minor panel members, has contributed to the club’s successful crusade thus far.
“We still have Eddie playing, and James Ryall is still playing as well, then we’d have Billy Ryan who is currently on the county panel, he’s our newest addition onto the Kilkenny panel,” Egan states.
“Aside from that then, we have good young lads coming through, we had five lads on the minor panel last year, we were very lucky last year to have those lads with the county team, and in the previous five years or so, we’d usually have one or two there or thereabouts on the minor team, which leads to talent coming through then.”
No side will admit to thinking too far ahead of themselves, and of the immense prize that awaits at the summit, and understandably so, so high are the stakes and with the margin for error so slight.
Yet there have been three Kilkenny victors at the ultimate stage in the last five years, and this side will fancy their chances of going all the way. In particular, the story of Bennettsbridge will be one a club like Graigue would be keen to emulate, where they underwent a remarkable two year season which saw them win county, Leinster and All-Ireland junior titles, followed by the same honours at intermediate level in 2015 and 2016.
Such an achievement is ambitious, but this Graigue-Ballycallan collection will certainly feel as though they have earned a place with the cream of the Kilkenny senior sides, and will stand as warm favourites for the All-Ireland title, should they overcome Portlaoise on Saturday.
Egan describes the focus in the camp, and how the experience earned in each game on the campaign is benefitting, rather than fatiguing the squad.
“We went back training the Wednesday after the county final, we had Celbridge up first. We got fully focused again, we want to give this competition a fair crack, they looked like they had us on the ropes for a good while, but thankfully, and again we managed to pull away in the end.
“That game stood to us in the semi against St. Mogue’s, we knew what we’d be up against intensity wise and fitness wise.”
The Kilkenny representatives won’t feel as though they are in bonus territory, they know the previous statistics in this championship and will be looking to tread where many of their county-men would have ventured before. In their way stands a large green and white wall, which certainly won’t diminish without a battle.