Clarecastle will need to be at their best


A busy weekend beckons on the club front with two more county finals being contested and important championship action in all four provinces. This year's championships look very open, and both reigning AllIreland champions, Athenry and Crossmaglen Rangers, have been eliminated already.

The county finals tomorrow are significant, with Clare's hurling decider between St Joseph's Doora-Barefield and Clarecastle in Ennis expected to draw a big crowd. St Joseph's have been a "promising" team for a little too long, and don't have their opponents' strength in depth. But they are strong down the middle and have been playing well.

Doora-Barefield have a doubt about Ollie Baker's fitness but will be heartened by Sean McMahon's display against Sixmilebridge in the semi-final, when he was outstanding according to most observers. They may decide to play Jamesie O'Connor at centre forward.

Clarecastle are entitled to be favourites, but Doora-Barefield may have the sort of momentum that wins titles.

In Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the West Cork clash of Beara and Castlehaven ended in a draw the last day. Castlehaven still look the better bet in terms of consistent personnel and experience, and - given Beara's divisional status - have already progressed in the Munster championship.

In Clones, tomorrow's Ulster final between Tyrone champions Errigal Ciaran and their Derry counterparts Dungiven is eagerly awaited on the basis of the competing full-forward lines.

Joe Brolly and Geoffrey McGonigle were to the fore in Dungiven's uncomfortably narrow win over St Paul's, whereas Eoin Gormley impressed in the defeat of All-Ireland champions Crossmaglen by exploiting the space he had borrowed from a subdued Peter Canavan, whose presence is nonetheless sufficiently alarming to unhinge defences.

On the basis that there's more to the rest of the Tyrone champions, they get the nod to take a second Ulster title in four years and set up the opportunity to make amends for their narrow defeat in 1994 by eventual champions Nemo Rangers.

This afternoon in Enniscorthy, Oulart-the-Ballagh taken on Laois' Castletown in a replay. Last week's draw will have caused a great deal of inconvenience to Oulart's county contingent, Martin Storey and Liam Dunne, who have been away on holidays with the Wexford panel.

They could have saved themselves the bother. But, having recovered from a big first-half deficit, they let themselves be caught in the dying moments. Laois has housed the provincial title for the past year, and Camross beat Wexford representatives Rathnure 12 months ago. But Castletown are less fortunate in their opponents.

Experience (this is Oulart's third crack at Leinster in four years and they were provincial finalists on their previous outings in 1994 and 1995, and only one member of the team has arrived in the interim) stands in the Wexford champions' favour and, underwritten by Paul Finn's unerring form off the placed ball, they will be expected to make sure this time.

Tomorrow in Walsh Park, Waterford, Ballygunner replay against Sarsfields, who are reckoned to have done as well as they're likely to by taking matters to a second day. Two years ago, Ballygunner destroyed Na Piarsaigh in similar circumstances, and 12 months ago mounted a storming comeback to push Wolfe Tones to a point in the Munster final.

The Waterford champions welcome back the volatile Paul Flynn, who combined 1-8 with a sendingoff in the county final and whose suspension is now served. That, home advantage and the scrambled nature of the Corkmen's reprieve would suggest that, despite the exceptional form of Cork under-21 midfielder Pat Ryan, the home side should win.

Leinster has a busy programme with all football quarter-finals being staged. The nasty fate that befell Finbar Cullen at Parnell Park last Sunday will give added edge to the return of his club, Edenderry, to the same venue to take on Erin's Isle.

The Offaly champions aren't so well-resourced that they can carry Cullen's loss with equanimity, and even allowing that the Isle's blitz of Old Leighlin - 5-18 scored by the full forward line alone - was primarily an indicator of how exceptional a Carlow side Eire Og was, the Dubliners have done enough to be viewed as marginal favourites for the provincial title and clear favourites for this.

Clane travel to Athlone to play Westmeath champions Moate, and, despite the poor record of Kildare clubs in this competition, should survive. Another county whose representatives have generally under-performed is Louth. This year's champions, Stabannon Parnells, go to Longford for a meeting with Father Manning Gaels.

Stabannon were rudely surprised in last year's county final by a St Joseph's side whose quickmoving style of play resembles that of tomorrow's opponents. Nonetheless, the Louth club have experience and the services of recently retired county player David Reilly, described by Louth manager Paddy Clarke as the "best club player in the county" and should progress.

Last year, Rathnew disappointed Wicklow's excellent recent tradition in the championship, and tomorrow "welcome" Navan O'Mahonys to the intimidating surrounds of Aughrim. Lucky to escape Kilanerin's clutches, the home side will have to improve, but they may benefit from Meath clubs' customarily unenthusiastic attitude to the championship.

Finally, in the west, the football semi-finals have the look of home wins for Allen Gaels of Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon and Galway's Corofin in Tuam.

The second match features the champions of the past two years meeting each other. Knockmore have done incredibly well to overcome the bruising they received in last March's All-Ireland and the loss of Kevin O'Neill. Corofin may, however, be just that bit fresher.