KEVIN EGAN believes that while Shamrocks may push the defending champions close in Saturday evening's Offaly SFC semi-final, he expects a Rhode team with ambitions of Leinster success to have too much in the tank.
On the face of it, tomorrow evening's match in O'Connor Park is all about Rhode getting one step closer to their 24th Offaly senior football championship, or indeed Shamrocks getting one step closer to their first. However, while the reigning champions are no doubt focused on the threat posed by Dessie Dolan's charges, their actions in recent weeks suggest that they are thinking of bigger things. Challenge matches against Corofin (Galway) and Oliver Plunketts (Dublin) - teams who would also be planning for success outside of their own county - illustrate that for this Rhode team, 2009 is as much about winning that long sought after Leinster title as it is about retaining the Dowling Cup.
The drawn encounter between these two sides in the group stages earlier this season, not to mention the county semi-final of 2007 where Shamrocks deservedly beat Rhode on a 1-14 to 3-5 scoreline, should be enough to concentrate the minds of the Rhode camp and they will need to, since even at full speed, Rhode could have their hands full tomorrow evening.
Niall Darby's injury and Padraig Sullivan's tour of duty in Chad has robbed the team of two certain starters throughout this summer and one outcome of this is that Shamrocks come into this fixture with at least as much depth in their team as their opponents. The continued development of Nigel Dunne and the solid form of Brian Monaghan provides their full-forward line with consistent scoring from every position, while their potential half-forward unit of Derek Molloy in between Paddy Kelly and Leonard Mooney offers power, pace, and experience.
Question marks remain over the ability of the Shamrocks midfield to secure sufficient primary possession, however the absence of a strong middle sector is not as fatal in Offaly as it might be in some other counties due to the general paucity of fielding talent all across the county. Rhode, too, suffer from this ailment and neither side will expect to dominate in the middle, instead looking to control the breaking play and use the full width of the pitch.
Where the real test lies for Shamrocks is in curtailing the widely-heralded Rhode attack, which has a very different look to it this year. Niall McNamee remains the talisman and the main threat, and it goes without saying that he'll have to be well marshalled, perhaps even double marked. Paschal Kelleghan and Anton Sullivan are similar footballers in that both are very skilled players who will create countless scoring opportunities for others, while also possessing the ability to take their own chances, and Ronan Heavey is just one forward who is well capable of taking advantage of this creativity if Niall is well marked.
No matter how much they protest otherwise, this is a Rhode team who are looking beyond Offaly, but their form and personnel suggests that they are entitled to. Shamrocks may stay in touch for long spells of tomorrow's fixture and they will benefit from their quarter-final win while Rhode were lying idle, at least in the championship sense, but one suspects that the Rahan/Mucklagh side will still find tomorrow's test too severe.
Daingean v K/K
The other big football tie of the weekend is the meeting of Kilcormac/Killoughey and Daingean in Geashill at 3pm tomorrow. These two clubs already met in the first round of the championship when K/K recorded a four-point win on Daingean's home field, but Daingean were missing a few key players on that occasion and might have a bit more in the tank tomorrow. In recent years the maroon men have been heavily reliant on John Greene for scores, but the introduction of a good spread of young players over the past couple of seasons leaves them with a very balanced attack, capable of scoring from any position. Jamie Hayes and Liam Brennan have each performed really well in the half-forward line and a disciplined defensive performance will be required from K/K to prevent a steady flow of Daingean scores.
There is no doubt that K/K have the playing personnel to win a junior championship, but with so much focus on hurling in the club, they simply cannot be coming into this game with sufficient preparation under their belts. Daingean look too good to be beaten by a team who haven't put in the groundwork and they should reverse July's result between the clubs.
Belmont v Kinnitty
There is also a good range of hurling fixtures this weekend, with the highlight the replay of the first round meeting between Kinnitty and Belmont.
The first meeting between these clubs saw a strong wind blowing down the Crinkle field and each side took full advantage of the elements when they had them. Belmont led by 0-11 to 0-3 at half-time and could easily have been further in front, while Kinnitty stormed back in the second half and an Odhran Kealey goal was enough to give them a draw that they probably just about deserved.
Kinnitty were very impressive back in May, but since the championship resumed in August they haven't found their stride at all. Colm Coughlan is once again heading up their attack but too many other star names are off form.
Most Belmont players know the Lusmagh pitch very well from playing and training together at under-21 level and if they can get off to another good start, there is a strong possibility that this time they won't be caught.
The winners of this clash meet Birr and, barring a shock, this is also the scenario for St. Rynagh's and Tullamore who meet in the third senior hurling quarter-final of the year. Tullamore enjoyed a comfortable but competitive win over Ballyskenach in the first round to reach this juncture while Rynagh's advanced straight to this stage after winning four of their five group games. The Banagher club are still short of the clinical scoring ability that would be required for them to challenge for a senior title, but they have solid dependable hurlers all over the field and are strong favourites to progress.
Rynagh's are also in action in the Intermediate semi-final against Birr and this game looks set to be one of the closest matches of the weekend. Birr were very solid throughout a dangerous group and look to be the slight favourites here, but will have to continue that form as a drop in standard would be punished.
Brosna Gaels v Ballinamere
The other intermediate semi-final between Ballinamere and Brosna Gaels is the curtain raiser to the Rhode v Shamrocks tie and there is no shortage of incentive for paying punters to get in early since this has the makings of a fine fixture. Brosna Gaels played some wonderful hurling in their quarter-final win over K/K and have acclimatised really well to intermediate hurling since their ascension two years ago.
Ballinamere have been banging down the door at intermediate level for a long time now and must surely be wondering when their turn will come. They comfortably dispatched Clara in their quarter-final and will enter this game as clear favourites, but Brosna Gaels are unlikely to go down easily.
Nine of the likely starting line-up played football for either Doon or Erin Rovers last weekend so that's unlikely to assist their cause, but if corner men Tom Spain and Alan Lynam aren't too drained from their heroics in beating Ferbane, they will give Ballinamere plenty to think about. Upset backers would possibly do well to keep an eye on this fixture as it could easily turn out to be the talking point of the weekend.