LAOIS SHC FINAL - Camross and Rathdowney-Errill must serve up a thriller to save disappointing SHC

Rory Delaney

Reporter:

Rory Delaney

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rory@leinsterexpress.ie

LAOIS SHC FINAL - Camross and Rathdowney-Errill must serve up a thriller to save disappointing SHC

Mark Dowling shoots at goal for Camross against Rathdowney-Errill in the ACHL Division 1 final. Pic: Denis Byrne.

For a long time now, the Laois SHC has been the saving grace of the club scene in the county, serving up unpredictability and quality in equal measures.

Sadly, that has not been the case this year, in what has been the first championship in a while which has lacked the customary drama, and indeed quality.

Perhaps the switch to a group stage took some of the edge out of the early rounds, and the teams have struggled to cope with the new format.

We're probably being generous there, because regardless of the format, there have been consequences tied to more or less every games played, but you wouldn't have thought it.

Ballinakill's last gasp win over Borris-Kilcotton and Castletown Gaels surprise win over Camross are the only games to offer something of interest this year, so far.

With Camross and Rathdowney-Errill the last two teams left standing, the hope remains that they can serve up another classic final to round off the season.

We have been spoiled when it comes to the final in recent years. Last year's games between Camross and Clough-Ballacolla was on a knife edge right up to the closing stages.

The year before, Rathdowney-Errill and Borris-Kilcotton served up a final for the ages, as the first game finished 2-26 apiece. Borris-Kilcotton won the replay 1-18 to 2-10.

There have been other cracking finals too, like Clough-Ballacolla's comeback against Camross in 2015, Rathdowney-Errill doing likewise to Clough-Ballacolla in 2012, in a replay, and possibly the second best final every played here, when Alan Delaney hit an injury time free to win it for Rathdowney-Errill against Portlaoise in 2008.

In short, Laois SHC finals hardly ever disappoint. They are usually close, and high-scoring affairs. So, have we whetted your appetite yet?

We can only hope this Sunday is a repeat, because this year's competition is due a humdinger. It will be the third properly competitive meeting of the teams this year, as they have already contested the ACHL Division 1 final, as well as facing each other in the group stage. Camross hold the upper hand so far, winning both games, but there is reason for Rathdowney-Errill not to be despondent.

In the league final, they were still very much in an experimental phase, with Paddy Purcell at full-forward, Eric Killeen at centre-forward, Jimmy Corrigan centre-back and Jack Kelly at full-back. They have since gone back to a more 'orthodox' line up, in that the players are back in positions we have been accustomed to seeing them in.

Camross have also evolved from last year, as Danny Owens brings his own ideas and methods to the team. Remarkably, only three players who started in their semi-final win over Borris-Kilcotton did so in the same position they started last year's final in.

Even the team itself has been overhauled, with seven of last year's SHC final winning team not starting in the semi-final, as Danny Owens has put his trust in youth.

Their starting full-forward line of Mark Dowling, Oisin Bennett and Eoin Gaughan was one of the youngest to ever feature at this stage of an SHC, and more experienced campaigners like Dean Delaney have been forced to watch on from the bench.

The interesting thing about Camross this year has been that they haven't ever really looked like they were playing to their full potential, but they have a remarkable ability to grind out results.

They played well against Rathdowney-Errill in the league final, but followed that up with a surprise loss to Castletown Gaels. They were backed into a corner then, knowing another defeat would knock them out.

Their response has been everything you would expect of a Camross team - they won their next three matches, topping their group and qualify for a fifth final in six year in the process.

Their meeting with Rathdowney-Errill showed the best and worst of them, which is what makes the final so difficult to call. They completely overwhelmed Rathdowney-Errill in the first half, and had opened up a 2-10 to 0-5 lead by the 23rd minute.

From there to the end, they played second fiddle. They eventually won by four points, but from the 23rd minute to the end, they were outscored by 1-12 to 0-8.

There were a few factors for that turnaround in fortunes, namely Rathdowney-Errill taking too long to nullify the major threats in the Camross team. Zane Keenan scored 0-7 in the first half of that game, with five of those coming from play, before Joe Fitzpatrick was detailed to mark him in the second half. He didn't score from play after half time.

Another factor which alters things from both the league final and the earlier championship meeting is that Rathdowney-Errill can now call on Ross King, who was unavailable due to his commitments in the USA for the summer.

He hasn't exactly set the world alight since he came back, but came up with two important points in the win over Ballinakill, and has a brilliant record in county finals. It was his scores which earned replays for Rathdowney-Errill in 2012 and 2016, and he ran riot against Camross in 2014.

His battle with Andrew Collier should be interesting, as Collier has been superb for Camross since dropping back to the heart of their defence. His move has seen Gearoid Burke line out at midfield, although Burke's injury against Borris-Kilcotton will put his participation in doubt.

Collier has been commanding the centre- back position quite well so far this year, chipping in with a few scores and his tussle with King is sure to have a major bearing on the game.

At the other end, as mentioned earlier, Camross have a really inexperienced full-forward line, but a very experienced half-forward line. Zane Keenan, Niall Holmes and Ciaran Collier have buckets of experience, with little about a county final likely to faze them in any way.

Keenan is, as ever, the lightning rod to opposition defenders, but Collier has been really impressive this year too. He is one of their key outlets on their own puckouts, and it was noticeable how Borris-Kilcotton tried to rough him up a little in the second half of the semi-final. His strong running will always draw attention from defenders, but he's scoring regularly now too.

He has landed 1-7 from play in his last three championship games, and added another 0-3 from play in the Division 1 final as well.

At the moment, he appears to have perfected the art of catching a puckout and hitting his stride as soon as his feet touch the ground. You could see that in the first half of the semi-final against Borris-Kilcotton, when he caught a puckout ahead of his marker and was five or six yards away and shooting over the bar within seconds of his studs returning to terra firma.

Rathdowney-Errill will have to be alive to that, and they can't really afford to leave Collier's direct opponent, whoever it is that picks him up, isolated on the Camross puckouts, because that is a scenario which will suit Collier to a T.

If you had concerns over Camross, it would be the inexperience of that full-forward line. Mark Dowling has experienced a county final before, but Bennett and Gaughan are new to this, and it'll be a big occasion for them in particular.

With injury concerns over Gearoid Burke, it would seem likely that Dwane Palmer will surely start if Burke is not fit. Indeed, even if Burke is fit, Palmer could still be factored into the side somewhere. He can play anywhere from corner-back to corner- forward, and if Danny Owens wants more experience up front, Palmer could get the nod.

Rathdowney-Errill, aside from John Purcell being turned into a midfielder, are fairly conventional in their setup. The only position that would appear to be up for grabs is in the full-forward line, with two positions seemingly up for grabs between Tadgh Dowling, Ray Bowe and Paddy McCane.

What stifled them so badly against Ballinakill was that Ballinakill dropped men back to clog up space around the Rathdowney-Errill half- forwards. Their half-forward line - Paddy Purcell, Ross King and James Ryan - will thrive if they have space to gallop into, so a big task for Camross is to get on top in this area and stop them getting a run on their back line.

At midfield, they both seem fairly well matched, but on paper at least, Rathdowney-Errill appear to be the more experienced side. The competition needs a grandstand finale, and these appear best placed to deliver one. The rest of us hold our collective breath and hope for a classic. It's up to the players now.