In the semi-finals of this year’s All-Ireland Post Primary Schools B championship, two teams that came through desperately tight provincial finals took on sides that enjoyed comfortable victories. On both occasions, it was the battle-hardened schools that came through, writes Kevin Egan.
While St. Nathy’s, who needed extra time to beat Scoil Mhuire, Strokestown, in the Connacht final, scraped over the line against Lucan CBS, Holy Trinity College of Cookstown took it to another level on their run to Croke Park.
After coming from five points down in their first MacLarnon Cup (Ulster Championship) final against St. Eunan’s of Letterkenny to salvage a draw, they prevailed by the minimum after extra time in the replay, setting up an All-Ireland semi-final clash with Pobalscoil Inbhear Sceine of Kenmare.
The Kerry side, who cruised through their provincial championship, moved into a ten-point lead thanks to two early goals in their clash at Abbotstown last week, but Holy Trinity worked their way back into the tie and they ran out 4-11 to 2-8 victors, after holding the South Kerry side scoreless from the 33rd minute until the end.
Understandably, School Director of Sport, Peter Canavan, was pleased with the measured approach and the composure of his players.
“The pressure has been put on these boys a good few times this year and they’ve always managed to bounce back,” said the former Tyrone player.
“The first thing was that they didn’t panic. They were ten points down against a Kerry team playing exceptional football, and they just hung in there. That fighting spirit that they displayed against St. Eunan’s in the MacLarnon Cup final, that was evident again there today, so they’re in good stead”, he continued.
“A lot of that is down to the way they were set up, and the way they’ve been coached by Stefan Forker, Aidan O’Hagan and Mark Bradley”.
“It’s special for any player to go to Croke Park and to play in an All-Ireland final, so it’s a very big occasion for them. These boys will respect the occasion and we hope that the nerves won’t get to them. But it’s a fantastic place to be. It’s where you want to play your football,” concluded the three-time All-Ireland winner.
It’s perhaps a measure of the professionalism of the Tyrone school that a role like Director of Sport even exists, much less that they can call on three other current or past intercounty players to look after the team. Current Antrim football captain Kevin O’Boyle has also done some work with the side, which further demonstrates the human resources available to the Ulster school.
However none of those current stars will be able to tog out and kick scores on Saturday, and on the field of play, there’s no obvious reason for St. Nathy’s to feel unduly intimidated. Certainly the goal threat posed by Holy Trinity will be a huge factor — 21 goals in their last eight games is a phenomenal record that looks doubly threatening when the prospect of playing in the wide, open spaces of Croke Park is factored into the equation.
However, Connacht schools have proven at every level that they’re well capable of competing at any level of competition, and St. Nathy’s will feel confident that the victories enjoyed by teams like Ballinrobe Community School and Scoil Mhuire, Strokestown, in 2017 can show them the way to success.
The role played by sweeper Kane Phillips is likely to be key, as he needs to be sure to plug gaps in front of goal and serve as the launchpad for St. Nathy’s attacking play. Sharp support play and good runs from deep positions set up three of the four Cookstown goals in their All-Ireland semi-final victory, and the sight of five starting midfielders and defenders getting on the scoresheet will give a clear indication of the swift, counter-attacking style of play that St. Nathy’s can expect to see from their opponents this Saturday afternoon.
Players will have to be acutely aware of this and not shirk their responsibilities out the field, but no plan works smoothly all the time. When the overlaps come, Phillips has to make sure that, where possible, only a white flag results.
If St. Nathy’s can stand firm and repel these swift attacking moves, even forcing a reverse pass to slow down the play if a turnover is not possible, they’ll be in a strong position. However, one missed tackle anywhere out the field will invariably cause problems.
Holy Trinity midfielders Eoin Gallagher and Pauric Lagan play the role of the team’s beating heart, covering acres of ground up and down the field and chipping in frequently on the scoreboard, while moving all across the field in their bid to control their own team’s restarts. Don’t expect to see a lot of traditional high fielding off the Cookstown kickout, as they instead try to shift the point of the attack and keep St. Nathy’s on their toes.
In a bid to counteract this, a high tackle count in advanced positions up the field will be crucial. The best way to discommode a team who like to attack in waves is to plant the seed of doubt in their mind by executing a few key turnovers, thus catching them on the hop and forcing defenders to think twice about committing to the support run forward.
Luke Conor, Matthew Coyle and Oisín Phillips haven’t racked up huge scoring tallies this year but they have put in several tireless hours of hard work off the ball. Oran Hester of Western Gaels will also be available again after suspension, and he too is comfortable working across the line and putting in the tackles.
If the game is played on Holy Trinity’s terms, with a very high tempo and little or no contested possessions, it’s hard to see St. Nathy’s racking up the scores needed to match their Ulster counterparts. However, there is no shortage of strength, power and mobility in this St. Nathy’s team. If they can use that physical prowess to unsettle their opponents and to provide players like Kuba Callaghan and James O’Hara with the scoring chances they need, then a happy ending could be in store to this latest, remarkable chapter in the footballing history of St. Nathy’s College.
HERALD VERDICT: St. Nathy’s College