Wednesday, February 21, 2024

SFC Final preview: Rhode’s experience can delay Tullamore coronation

By Randal Scally

The Tullamore Court Hotel SFC reaches its climax on Sunday when Rhode and Tullamore do battle for the Dowling Cup for the second year in-a-row at Bord na Mona O’Connor Park (throw-in 3pm).

The final pits the two most successful football clubs in the county against each other and provides Tullamore with an opportunity to avenge last year’s narrow defeat and move within two senior championships of ‘The Village’, who top the roll of honour with 30 titles and are seeking their fifth in six years. Of course, Rhode’s dominance of the Offaly football landscape stretches back much further than that and it would be a truly remarkable achievement were veteran Alan NcNamee to win his 13th SFC medal, 23 years after winning his first.

Whereas Rhode went into last year’s final as hot favourites, they’re only marginal favourites this time with Paddy Power bookmakers quoting them at 4/5 and Tullamore at 11/8. The odds reflect the big strides Tullamore have made over the past 12 months. Niall Stack’s charges captured their first Division 1 League title in 27 years in the middle of August and have remained unbeaten in the championship.

Their impressive form, coupled with their recent minor and U20 successes, has generated a feelgood factor in the county town. Tullamore have a wealth of outstanding young talent at their disposal and the feeling is that’s only a matter of time before they regain the Dowling Cup.

But they have to take down Rhode first and that will be no easy task. A shock first round defeat to Durrow, when admittedly they were without four or five of their marquee players, raised questions about Rhode’s hunger and desire to go to the well once again. But in typical fashion, they regrouped to win their next four games and make it safely back to the final. A feature of their run to the decider has been the outstanding form of talisman Niall McNamee, who posted 3-8 in the last round of the group stages against Ferbane, and is playing some of the best football of his long and illustrious career.

Rhode’s appearance in their 10th consecutive final is all the more praiseworthy in light of them being without two of their best defenders for virtually all of the season. Full back Jake Kavanagh hasn’t kicked a ball since suffering ligament damage in the first round of the league against Durrow, while Eoin Rigney lasted just 16 minutes of their second round championship win over Cappincur after succumbing to the ACL injury he sustained while playing for Offaly against Kildare in the Leinster SFC. Niall Darby has also had his injury problems, while Paul McPadden is a big doubt after coming off with a shoulder injury during the quarter-final against Shamrocks.

In contrast, Tullamore have been relatively injury-free, despite the huge demands placed on their dual stars and younger players over the last couple of months. The biggest casualty of this hectic schedule is Offaly All-Ireland U20 winner Cormac Egan, who looks set to miss out with a hamstring problem.

Make no mistake about it, Tullamore are very dangerous opposition for the champions, who they’ve already beaten this year in the league. They’re improving and maturing with every game, and with players of the calibre of Declan Hogan, Paul McConway, captain Johnny Moloney, Mickey Brazil, Aaron Leavy and Luke Egan in their ranks, it won’t be a surprise if they’re celebrating a first championship in seven years come Sunday evening. They also have the likes of Shane Dooley and John Furlong to spring from a bench that is arguably the strongest in the county.

It has the makings of a terrific final which is very close to 50/50. Indeed, extra-time cannot be ruled out. There was only a kick of a ball in it last year and Tullamore are a better team now. But whether they have improved enough to stop Niall McNamee and co from leaving O’Connor Park with the Dowling Cup once again remains to be seen. Verdict: Rhode.

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