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Cushendall come up against superior class in Na Piarsaigh

Na Piarsaigh's Cathal King does the honours at Croke Park on Thursday
Picture by Seamus Loughran  
Brendan Crossan at Croke Park

All-Ireland Club SHC final:
Na Piarsaigh (Limerick) 2-25 Ruairi Og, Cushendall (Antrim) 2-14

BENEATH a beautiful sun, their dream of becoming All-Ireland champions was crushed by the men from the Shannon.

There was something unmistakably romantic, pure and innocent about the road the Ruairi Ogs travelled this season. But the last stretch just got too tough for the north Antrim men. They will probably never face a better team for the remainder of their careers than Na Piarsaigh.

The Limerick men, also in pursuit of their first-ever All-Ireland senior title yesterday, were outstanding from start to finish. Na Piarsiagh manager Shane O’Neill is a very lucky man to have six class forwards and a rock of a midfielder in Alan Dempsey.

Despite Cushendall boasting a handful of top quality county defenders, nobody would have stopped Adrian Breen, David Breen, Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes or Peter Casey at Croke Park on Thursday. Had Arron Graffin and Ryan McCambridge built a 10-feet high wall, the Na Piarsaigh forwards would have run right through it.

You could quibble with the effectiveness of Cushendall’s sweeper system and one or two of the match-ups, but you’d be splitting hairs. Tactics were rendered meaningless. The Munster champions were just too good, too powerful and too damn accurate when they got a sniff of Cushendall’s posts.

At one stage during the second-half, Na Piarsaigh’s accuracy was bordering on the ridiculous. Under the shadow of the Hogan Stand, and with Cushendall’s goalposts in the far-off distance, Kevin Downes slung over a point in the 50th minute that would’ve ripped the heart out of any opponent. Two minutes later Shane Dowling achieved something similar.

Na Piarsaigh’s shooting was scandalously good. Limerick manager TJ Ryan must have been purring. Although it was clear from the opening exchanges of Thursday’s All-Ireland final that Cushendall were unlikely to win, the truth of the matter was that they did incredibly well to post 2-14 on the scoreboard.

The Antrim and Ulster champions actually drew the second half – 2-7 to 0-13 – which was testament to their warrior-like resistance that got them to Croke Park. But their victories were destined to be small ones.

Shane McNaughton was the best Ruairi Og had to offer. Wearing his familiar green helmet, everything about McNaughton’s performance was magnificent. He was a glowing parable for never quitting. Although this final was over as a contest long before the final whistle, McNaughton played with an effervescence you normally don’t see among the defeated.

His stick work was immaculate, buying him precious time and space. He hit four brilliant points, the best of which came in the 53rd minute. Twisting one way then the other, his movement seemed to defy the laws of geometry before splitting Na Piarsaigh’s posts.  

The only injustice of the day was that Cushendall’s number eight finished on the losing team. It was also his free that enabled Neil McManus to flick the sloitar home from close range in the 39th minute that left the scores 2-18 to 1-8.

The Ruairi Og supporters roared with approval but while they’d watched their team mount some memorable comebacks this season, even the most wildly optimistic among them knew that McManus’s three-pointer was merely putting a hint of respectability on the scoreboard.

McManus was the architect of Cushendall’s second major in the closing stages when he cleverly changed direction before firing the ball towards substitute Karl McKeegan who flicked it over his shoulder and into Na Piarsaigh’s net. McKeegan’s goal reduced the Limerick men’s lead to 11 points, 2-24 to 2-13, with two minutes of normal time remaining.

For Cushendall, the damage was done in the first-half. Or, to be more precise, the opening seconds of Thursday’s final. Adrian Breen, a late replacement for Kevin Ryan in the Na Piarsaigh attack, struck for goal after just 20 seconds. The centre of the Cushendall defence was left wide open. One simple puck from David Dempsey to Breen and the north Antrim men were on the back foot. Eoin Gillan, in goal, had no chance.

Arron Graffin struggled to contain Adrian Breen after that terrible beginning, while David Breen was clever at pulling Eoghan Campbell out of his central defensive position. And yet, Cushendall responded well to that first minute setback. Alec Delargy burst through the middle to open their account and Neil McManus nailed a free a minute later. But there was clearly more threat when Na Piarsaigh attacked.

Shane Dowling was getting the upper hand on Ryan McCambridge and rammed home his superiority with Na Piarsaigh’s second goal of the game after 26 minutes. It was a majestic counter-attack by the Limerick men. Skipper Cathal King burst down along the Hogan Stand side before off-loading to Downes. The Limerick star skipped beyond McCambridge’s reach before slapping the ball past Gillan to put Na Piarsaigh 2-10 to 0-3 in front.

Ronan Lynch was doing a fine sweeping job to deny the Cushendall forwards space, so it was left to Shane McNaughton to hit a pair of points from distance while Conor Carson came alive to help out on the scoreboard.

Despite three morale-boosting points from Cushendall just before the break, Na Piarsaigh still had time to bag to stoppage-time scores from the impressive Peter Casey and Downes to leave them 2-12 to 0-6 ahead at the interval.

Na Piarsaigh hit five points without reply between the 34th and 37th minutes that could have had a demoralising impact on Cushendall. Adrian Breen was unstoppable down the right flank, hitting two points in that three-minute spell, while Casey skipped away from the otherwise reliable Martin Burke to get his third of the day.

But, to their credit, Cushendall came firing back. McManus rose above the crowd to ripple Na Piarsaigh’s net and followed up with a converted free. Eoghan Campbell raced into opposition territory to thump one over the bar. 

And just when it seemed Na Piarsaigh’s scores were drying up, midfielder Alan Dempsey would hammer over Cushendall’s bar from distance. He bagged four points from play - two in each half - and was among the many man-of-the-match contenders wearing sky blue.

Gillan made a series of late saves to deny Na Piarsaigh further goals. But their forwards could be forgiven. Downes, Dowling and the Breens produced a gold-plated performance that no defence could have lived with yesterday.

For John ‘Smokey’ McKillop’s players, it was no disgrace losing to such a great hurling team. For the Ruairi Ogs, one of the most romantic journeys ended in Croke Park yesterday afternoon. But nobody will forget the ride. How could we?

 

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