BY TOM LYONS
TWO of the best rural dual clubs in the county will come face to face in the premier intermediate hurling final on Sunday in Páirc Uí Rinn.
Win on Sunday and either Newcestown or Valley Rovers will become the only rural club in the county to field senior teams in both football and hurling at the same time. It will be a huge honour for whichever club wins.
The fact that the clubs are near neighbours and know each other very well will add special spice to this eagerly-awaited final.
Because Newcestown contested last year’s final, losing to Ballyhea, and that they have been knocking on the door for a few years now, they will be slight favourites to win but the nature of Valleys’ semi-final victory over championship favourites, Ballinhassig, makes them likely winners in many people’s eyes.
There can be no disputing that Valleys are on a roll at present, winning two county U21 titles and a premier intermediate title in the past three years, plus doing very well in this year’s county senior football championship, but all of those victories were in football and Newcestown’s hurling record has been more impressive.
At the beginning of the championship season, it would have been difficult to foresee this pairing in the final. Newcestown did what was expected of them, quietly and unspectacularly, winning each game narrowly on the way to the big day but when Valleys lost the opening two rounds by large scores, the odds on them progressing any further, let alone reaching the final, were long indeed.
However, a decisive third round win turned their hurling season around and now they find themselves, unexpectedly, just an hour away from senior ranks. It has been achieved before but it is extremely rare that a team which loses the opening two rounds goes on to win a championship.
After losing the county final to Ballyhea last October, Newcestown took a long break and it was all concentration on football in the early part of the year.
Only two hurling games were played before the first round of the championship against Tracton. Little wonder they showed signs of rustiness for much of that game and had to depend on a 61st minute goal from Luke Meade and some fine free-taking by Eoin Kelly to pull them through on a score of 1-16 to 1-13.
There was a two-month break then, with football again taking precedence, before the fourth round against Blarney and again it took a 60th minute goal, this time from Kelly, to see them through by 1-17 to 1-13. Luke Meade scored 0-4 and Jack Meade acted as a sweeper as Newcestown led by 0-9 to 0-7 at the break. Daniel Twomey had a fine game at midfield.
Tracton had fought their way back into the championship and the sides met for the second time, in the quarter-final. This time the St John’s men led from pillar to post, and won 1-13 to 0-12; Eoin Kelly again scored the vital goal in the 38th minute.
Newcestown then beat Mallow in the semi-final, 1-18 to 1-16. Luke Meade scored a first-half goal, while goalkeeper Kieran Kelly made some marvellous saves in the dying minutes.
In their four games Newcestown scored a total of 4-64 while conceding 3-54, that averages 1-16 to 1-13, showing the tight nature of their games to date.
While using more or less the same personnel for all their games, Newcestown have done a good deal of positional switching, especially at midfield and up front, while experimenting with a sweeper and a third midfielder.
The steadiest line has been the full-back line of the experienced John Crowley at full back, with promising Cork players Micheál McSweeney and Greg Murphy in the corners, in front of reliable goalkeeper Kieran Kelly, who has come to the rescue more than once.
The strong Fionn Keane, James Desmond and Conor O’Neill will probably man the half-back line, while one of the Twomey brothers, Daniel or Tadhg, plus Jack Meade should hold down the midfield berths.
Up front, Eoin Kelly and Luke Meade have been producing most of the scores, with Cárthach Keane, one of the Twomeys, Mike Bradfield, Cian Twomey, and young minors Colm Dineen and Sean O’Donovan all fighting for places. Darren Heffernan and Odhrán Keane could also feature.
Valley Rovers have really taken the long road to this final, playing no less than seven games along the way.
In the first round, short some exam-tied players, they were hammered by Fermoy by 2-15 to 1-9, with an over-dependence on Kevin Canty up front and Cork minor Chris O’Leary doing well at midfield.
O’Leary was missing for the second round against neighbours Carrigaline, and, having being level with only two minutes of normal time remaining, Valleys conceded 2-4 in the closing six minutes to lose by 3-13 to 1-12.
There was one chance left in the championship and in that third-round game, Valleys produced a power-packed display against Inniscarra, winning by 3-20 to 0-5. Chris O’Leary at corner forward hit two goals and the experienced Richie Butler got the third, with Eoin O’Reilly totalling ten points.
Near-neighbours, Bandon, were next up, in the fourth round and Valleys were in full flow now, recording an impressive 1-19 to 0-13 victory.
Quarter-final opponents were the hardy warriors from Kanturk and this proved a battle royal with the sides finishing all square, 1-13 to 2-10, Valleys having trailed 2-7 to 0-7 at the three-quarter stage. In the replay, Kevin Canty was the dominant figure and Chris O’Leary hit nine points as Valleys ran out winners by 0-17 to 1-12.
Any lingering doubts about Valleys’ credentials were expelled in the semi-final, another local derby against championship favourites, Ballinhassig, as they hit the closing three points of the game to win by 1-14 to 0-15. Again the backs were outstanding, including Tomás O’Brien and Darragh Murphy, with O’Leary recording 1-8.
In their seven games Valleys have recorded 8-104 while conceding 9-83, an average of 1-15 to 1-13 per game, almost identical to Newcestown’s.
Since their transformation in the third round, Valleys defence has been the rock on which all their wins are founded. Top-class goalkeeper Willie Burke is fronted by the outstanding Noel O’Donovan at full back, with Cormac Desmond and Tomás O’Brien in the two corners. David Lynch will man the vital centre back slot with the outstanding Darragh Murphy and Joseph Lynch on the wings.
Darragh Looney will fill one midfield position and could be partnered by Gary Farrell or Kevin Canty. The strong Canty will probably figure up front and, with Chris O’Leary, will provide most of the scoring power.
Richie Butler and Eoin O’Reilly are also handy in front of the posts, with Jack Walsh, John Cottrell and Billy Crowley all fighting for starting places.
Prediction: Local derbies are notoriously hard to predict as they usually take on a life of their own and the result could hinge on the slightest factor, like a refereeing decision. One gets the feeling that the two vital lines in this clash will be the Newcestown half-back line and the Valleys’ full-forward line.
If Keane, Desmond and O’Neill can cut off the supply of ball to Canty, O’Leary and Butler, then Newcestown will have taken a giant step to a title they badly want to win. On the other hand, if the Valleys’ trio get their hands on enough ball, they could cause a lot of damage.
Valleys are on a roll that might just get them over the line but the experience of last season’s final defeat will be driving on the Newcestown men. This clash has all the ingredients of a thriller and I think we may see the sides in action again in a replay.