Unsurprisingly the last chapter in this year’s controversial Galway Senior Hurling Championship promises to be lively.
Portumna and Loughrea’s recent history ensures Sunday’s Pearse Stadium decider will attract a sizeable crowd to the Salthill venue (2.30pm ).
Amid controversial circumstances Loughrea advanced to Sunday’s final after overcoming Mullagh by 0-16 to 0-15 , while Portumna defeated Gort by 4-14 to 6-05 to book their place in a seventh successive final. This is the fourth occasion these two sides have met in the decider in the last seven years.
Loughrea famously dethroned Portumna in 2006 with a splendid late burst of scores. Portumna, though, have responded to that setback, and remain unbeaten in championship hurling since that loss.
While any outfit containing Joe Canning and Damien Hayes will not be short on style, there is a hard substance to this Portumna team too. Physical battles are not shirked, and they have proven adept at dealing with all kind of situations. Though raining goals in their semi-final win over Gort, Portumna had inflicted so much damage early on that the concessions did not prove fatal.
There is depth in the Portumna panel demonstrated by Martin Dolphin’s two-goal salvo upon his introduction that October afternoon. Dolphin’s reward is likely to be a recall to a starting XV that is loaded with experience. Eugene McEntee, Gareth Heagney, and Michael Ryan offer the bustling aggression in a defence that contains a current All Star in Ollie Canning. The smooth way in which Canning continues to operate means that only a gifted corner forward can expect to inflict any significant damage.
At centrefield the industrious Leo Smith plays alongside Eoin Lynch, arguably the most under-rated performer in the county. Lynch frequently delivers in the crucial contests, and is a capable operator.
Portumna’s attack glimmers with class. Niall Hayes, Kevin Hayes, and Andy Smith form a willing half forward line that should keep Damien Hayes and Joe Canning busy inside. Kevin Hayes’ relevance on the ‘40’ should not be underestimated, and in a winter hurling tie his ability spearheading the attack is a key component for Portumna.
However a quiet confidence accompanies Loughrea into this weekend’s skirmish. Mullagh were viewed by many as potential finalists, but Loughrea matched them at the penultimate stage as Neil Keary’s free-taking was precise.
Eleven points in such a tight encounter was a considerable haul, and Loughrea will hope that Keary can be as precise against Portumna. While the suspension of Nigel Shaughnessy deprives Loughrea of a hearty competitor, Eoin Mahony and Damien McClearn will embrace the added responsibility.
Gavin Keary and Brian Mahony have dovetailed well at midfield for Loughrea, who will be keen to restrict Portumna in this sector. Mahony’s inter-county career was damaged by some cruel misfortune with injury, but his sweet striking skills remain.
Up front Loughrea need the Mahers, Vinnie and Johnny, to produce the type of gutsy displays that helped them into the 2007 All Ireland club final. Johnny O’Loughlin has the skill to nick scores too, while Johnny Coen and Keary’s form gives Loughrea plenty of hope entering a match in which Loughrea crave a positive start.
Portumna will adopt a direct approach initially, and if Loughrea survive a severe opening period assignment, this could turn into an intriguing tussle.
Hopes are high that the drama that has surrounded this year’s championship will not detract from a highly competitive and entertaining encounter.
The final between Loughrea and the reigning All-Ireland club champions was due to have taken place last weekend, but was postponed following reports that Mullagh was appealing its semi-final loss to Loughrea that ended in controversy. Referee and former inter-county player Christy Helebert had to remain on the field for about 10 minutes before receiving a Garda escort to his dressing-room after awarding a late free to Loughrea which yielded the winning score.
However Mullagh dropped their appeal after a proposed 48-week ban on three Mullagh players, former county player Conor Dervan, wing back John Rafferty and Davy Glennon, was since reduced to 12 weeks.
That decision sparked another threat to this year’s final when referees had considered strike action.