By Damian Dolan
We’ve reached the business end of the All-Britain Junior Football Championship, with three-in-a-row chasing Kilkenny still looking like the team to beat.
The Cats face Scotland in Glasgow on Saturday in the first of the weekend’s semi-finals, with Warwickshire and Lancashire primed to do battle on Sunday.
But Lancashire and London may have exposed chinks in the armour of the Cats, which might give Diarmuid McNulty’s Scotland side some cause for optimism.
In Round 1 a below-strength Warwickshire side were brushed aside at McGovern Park – Shane Stapleton scoring 2-3.
Stapleton, a former Dublin underage hurler and senior panellist from the Dicksboro club, then chipped in with eight points against London at Nowlan Park.
But the holders needed to pull out a strong second half display after Stephen Lynch’s London had led by one-point at the break. The Cats eventually prevailed by 0-13 to 1-6 to book their place in the last four.
They then threatened to blow Lancashire away at Old Bedian’s, leading by 3-1 to 0-4 after ten minutes, only for Jimmy Wray’s side to battle back.
By the 50th minute, Lancashire were on level terms, only for Kilkenny to edge ahead to win by 3-14 to 0-20. Another close call.
Kilkenny are a big, physical and skilful side, of that there is no doubt, but London and Lancashire got as close as anyone has to them for a while.
Worryingly, McNulty’s Scotland have played just once. Having been given a walkover by Yorkshire in Round 1, they beat an improving Hertfordshire in Glasgow by seven points (1-14 to 1-7).
They then gave Gloucestershire a walkover in Round 3 – safe in the knowledge that they’d already done enough to reach the semis.
Scotland v Kilkenny
Saturday 15th June
Clydebank, Glasgow, 6pm
Warwickshire v Lancashire
Sunday 16th June
Old Bedian’s, Manchester, 2pm
So while Scotland go into their semi-final with the holders with just one game under their belt, Kilkenny have played three.
Saturday will be third meeting between the sides in the past year, having met twice in 2018.
Scotland were beaten by seven points in Round 2 in Glasgow, before the sides faced off in Leeds in the semi-finals. This time the Cats came through by eight points.
But Scotland, who are looking for a first British title since their only win in 2014, will be fuelled by that defeat.
McNulty told the Irish World last month that Kilkenny had refused to come back to Scotland for the semi-final, after Scotland had given them a “fair crack” in Glasgow.
The game was moved to Leeds which meant back-to-back weekend trips to Leeds for the Scots.
This time the Cats are definitely heading to Glasgow, so Saturday’s clash could have some added spice to it.
Prior to last year’s double defeat, Scotland are the one side to have had Kilkenny’s measure in the competition, since the Cats entered in 2014.
While it was the Cats who ended Lancashire’s ‘drive for five’ at the quarter-final stage in their debut year, they then succumbed to Scotland (0-16 to 0-8) in the semi-finals.
Scotland also got the better of Kilkenny in 2016 – beating them by two points.
The weekend’s other semi-final, between Warwickshire and Lancashire, has the potential to be an absolute cracker, if their group game at Pairc na hEireann is anything to go by.
Having trailed for much of the game, goals from Jack Keogh (a stunning solo effort) and Stephen Keogh won it for Eamon Hanlon’s Warwickshire by 3-14 to 3-12.
Warwickshire’s Round 3 game with London mattered not, with Lancashire’s defeat to Kilkenny, but a small Warwickshire panel still beat London in Ruislip, 2-10 to 1-10.
Jack Keogh’s first half goal was added to by Joe Owens, who was on hand to finish off a lovely move.
Hanlon’s men took their chances against London and in the likes of Conal Dowling, Michael Harrigan, Gareth Boyle and Jack Keogh have some dangerous forwards.
Niall Gilbride is solid at centre back and never misses a chance to get his side going forwards, while Connor Lenihan is combative in midfield.
Perennial bridesmaids Warwickshire haven’t enjoyed provincial championship success since 2006 – and have lost in five of the last 11 finals. Could this be their year?
Lancashire may have finished Group A winless, with a draw (versus London) and defeats to Warwickshire and Kilkenny, but they are a side full of experience and are now battled-hardened with three very competitive outings under the belt.
Veteran Michael Molloy and his opposite corner forward Paddy McCoy had given Lancashire an early two-goal lead over Warwickshire in their Pairc na hEireann meeting, but they weren’t able to build on that start.
In Molloy and Sands they have two able freetakers, and Thomas Finlay and Peadar McCarthy are a strong midfield pairing.
It was Sands’ late point which gave Lancashire a share of the spoils against London at Pairc na hEireann in Round 1, after Molloy’s first half penalty.
Lancashire, the dominant force before the Cats joined the party, had a poor 2018 by their own high standards. Well-beaten by Scotland, they then handed Herts in walkover in their quarter-final.
2018 was clearly a ‘blip’, as it came on the back of winning four-in-a-row between 2010-13 and another title in 2016.
They were dethroned by Kilkenny in 2017, but only after a titanic semi-final clash which the Cats edged by two points at Old Bedians. Lancashire had led by six at the break.
But new manager James Wray seems to have turned them into a competitive force once again, and they have pedigree in this competition.