PREVIEW: Offaly's Junior Hurling Championship 2020
THE Molloy Environmental Systems Junior Hurling Championship looks to be wide open at the moment with no obvious favourites.
With two groups of five and the top two teams in each going into the semi-finals, it should be a competitive and enjoyable championship.
Group one sees Kilcormac/Killoughey, Tullamore, Ballinamere, Ballyskenagh/Killavilla and Shamrocks while Kinnitty, Crinkle, Coolderry, Gracefield and Clodiagh Gaels are in group 2. It is very difficult to assess chances at this stage. You can look at results from last year as a guideline but in many cases, this is of very limited value. A club’s junior hurling side this year could bear little comparison to last year – the promotion of a talented young player to a higher grade or retirement of an
older war-horse could fatally damage a side’s chances.
There is something very refreshing, very honest about this level of hurling. You have such a mixture of players. You have former senior stalwarts, ageing hurlers with senior medals and honours in their back pockets, you have exciting young talent, players who will play a higher level but are not quite ready or mature enough yet. You also have some excellent junior hurlers.
Players who really thrive at this grade and don’t play at a higher grade for a myriad of reasons – in some cases, they just don’t have the commitment or desire and prefer the less pressurised zone of junior hurling. Some players don’t have the lifestyle to play higher and have a bit of weight on – we have all seen outstanding junior hurlers and footballers with a bit of excess poundage but still hugely effective at this level whereas they wouldn’t survive at a higher level without getting fully fit.
It makes for compelling viewing and there is such raw intensity about it all. Two of the clubs, Kilcomac/Killoughey and Coolderry will field their third team in junior and K/K, beaten by Belmont in the final last year, may prove to be the stronger of those as they have a greater pick and have enjoyed more underage success in recent years. You would imagine that a championship win at this grade would be beyond Coolderry's third team, though they can't be ruled out, but Kilcormac/Killoughey have serious prospects. They have a lot of hurlers, plenty of lads coming off minor teams eager and hungry to make their mark, a few experienced ones and they have a good mix.
Three, Ballyskenagh/Killavilla, Crinkle and Gracefield have their first team in junior and this should give them advantages as it is their main focus and they will be preparing so seriously for it – in Gracefield’s case, however, football is their main focus this year as they try to win the Senior “B” Football Championship and this will be a factor in their hurling performances. They do, however, have a hardcore of hurling enthusiasts and will be preparing hard.
The remainder of the clubs have their second team here. Some will struggle and you would imagine that Shamrocks will find it hard to win this championship. They are a dual club with football having the edge at the moment and their second team in hurling won’t be a priority – even though, the teams that take the field will give it everything they have.
Tullamore should be strong. They may be gone out of top flight hurling but they have a big pick and have been knocking on the door in this championship in recent years – losing to Shinrone in the 2018 final and to Kilcormac/Killoughey in the semi-final last year. You wouldn't put them down as winners at this stage but it wouldn't be a surprise at all if they came out on top of the tree.
Kinnitty should have a decent enough team but their big focus this year is on returning to senior hurling and getting to the senior “B” final – relegated last year, the two senior “B” finalists will be promoted this year as they return senior to ten teams. They reached the semi-finals last year, losing out to eventual champions Belmont and they should be competitive. They certainly won’t be holding any players back from the top grade and they could fall short at this level.
Ballyskenagh/Killavilla are serious contenders. They will be going all out and have all their eggs in the one basket. Crinkle also have all their focus on this grade but are in a transitional period as they try to build a team and they have improving to do.
Ballinamere and Clodiagh Gaels also have very good prospects. Both have won minor and U-16 hurling titles in recent years and have a lot of very good young hurlers along with a few capable older ones. In Ballinamere’s case, they have a couple from the Durrow end who were pivotal to their underage success but are more committed to football now while Clodiagh Gaels have the full pick of Killeigh parish with footballers from Raheen and Ballinagar eligible to play with them.
We won’t really know until a couple of rounds are played and even then, you can’t trust results as clubs lose players to higher grades as the championship progresses. We will just have to wait and see but at the moment, the short list of main contenders looks to be Kilcormac/Killoughey, Ballinamere, Clodiagh Gaels, Tullamore, Kinnitty and Ballyskenagh/Killavilla. Others could mount a charge but it is great to see a championship so open like this with no definite favourites.
Group 1 is the strongest group on paper and with the top two going into the semi-finals and no quarter-finals this year, it will be ferociously competitive. Shamrocks are the outsiders here but Kilcormac/Killoughey, Tullamore, Ballinamere and Ballyskenagh/Killavilla all fancy their chances of going the whole way and two will go early. Ballyskenagh/Killavilla and Kilcormac/Killoughey could edge out here while Kinnitty will expect to get out of group 2 and Clodiagh Gaels could accompany them.
It is almost impossible to predict championship winners at this stage but you would have to give Ballyskenagh/Killavilla a very good chance. They were bitterly disappointed to lose out in the quarter-finals last year and while they may have some players getting on a bit, they have a lot of very good hurlers. It's all to play for though with a lot of teams having a good chance.
Verdict – Ballyskenagh/Killavilla.