Cushendall stand strong as Ballycran take too long to find the pace in Ulster Hurling final
AIB Ulster Senior Club Hurling Championship final: Ruairi Óg, Cushendall 1-15 St Joseph’s, Ballycran 0-10
THE softer the ground gets, the harder Cushendall are to beat.
The 100 tonne of sand laid two weeks ago hadn’t settled all that much on the Athletic Grounds surface, which made for a scrappy, physical game.
Nobody does scrappy and physical like the Ruairi Ógs do it.
There moments of blinding quality from Neil McManus in the first half. Donal McNaughton made the stand rise to its feet a few times. Arron Graffin’s powerful display was the spectacular end of a defensive display that largely won them this game.
Mostly, it was about grinding. Doing enough. And partly playing on Ballycran’s inexperience of days like this.
A very healthy 3,742 saw them struggle to get to grips in a first half that ended with the underdogs eight down. Cushendall had gone 0-4 to 0-1 ahead and while their directness wasn’t always paying profit in the full-forward line, it was forcing Ballycran back a bit, and a bit more, until they were all on top of themselves in defence with no way out.
ULSTER CHAMPIONS pic.twitter.com/Kk0gkESWBb— Antrim GAA (@AontroimGAA) November 11, 2018
The Down champions did, however, have some superb defensive performances. Patrick Hughes, on any other day, would have earned man-of-the-match. Sean Ennis and Michael Hughes never gave a peep away, while Paudie Flynn did well to put hooks into Donal McNaughton after Liam Savage’s struggle with him in the first 25 minutes.
It was McManus doing most of the damage, with Brett Nicholson not getting close enough in open play, and it was arresting and changing those man-marking assignments that had a big influence on Ballycran’s vastly improved second half.
But they also brought a fearlessness out of the changing room that they hadn’t carried in the first half. They got torn in and, with the benefit of the doubt from referee James Connors on the majority of calls, the Ardsmen had enough ball to win two games.
They were, however, 1-11 to 0-6 down by then. The goal had come just as Ballycran were loosening the noose, with Conor Woods hitting two superb scores either side of an equally spectacular 90-yard effort from McManus.
All of that left four in it (0-8 to 0-4) before Fergus McCambridge popped perfectly into the surging, off-the-shoulder run of Donal McNaughton. He tore down the right and was denied by an outstanding Stephen Keith save, but the sliotar fell in front of Stephen McAfee who managed to go full stretch and swipe it home.
The leaks looked too numerous for the Down champions to stop the flood. Woods was having limited impact, Phelim Savage wasn’t on enough ball, none of their full-forward line had room to breathe. The sandy surface wasn’t helping their short game, particularly down the middle of the pitch, and they were heading in eight points down.
Scott Nicholson weaved and dodged his way through traffic with the ball on his stick before firing over a magnificent, rousing score but Paddy Burke sucked the air out of that one by making good on a wonderful Arron Graffin catch to fire over from 80 metres.
Ballycran did have a significant wind at their backs for the second half, and that turned out to be the starting point for a revival that didn’t bring them as close as it ought to have.
Its strength was evident when Neil McManus just couldn’t make the range with his first effort on the restart, and when Scott Nicholson and Collum McManus – who came into the game much better in the second period – fired over scores, the embers flickered.
Liam Savage had moved on to Neil McManus and shadowed him everywhere in the second period. That had a major bearing, but Ballycran still needed everything to go right. And it just didn’t.
Having hit those two early scores, they were afforded six chances across a ten-minute spell, but took just one of them. Scott Nicholson, James Coyle, Collum McManus, Christopher Egan and Conor Woods all struck wides, with Coyle landing a fine solitary score in a spell of absolute dominance that saw Donal McNaughton land a monster for Cushendall too.
Those points were either side of Arron Graffin’s horror knee injury, which made a hefty contribution to the 12 added minutes which kept Ballycran hearts beating for another while.
Collum McManus fired over to cut the gap to five on 58 minutes, by which stage they knew there’d be almost 15 still to play. The black and amber shirts were tormenting, hounding, turning over at will. All the traits from the Slaughtneil game were coming out.
Without the scores, though, it was all in vain. And then McManus nailed a free from 50 yards, bettered it with one from 70 and Eoghan Campbell laced over all in the space of two minutes to seal the deal.
In the sense of losing Conor Carson and possibly Arron Graffin, it’s been a costly two weeks for Cushendall in one sense.
But the price of success is one they’ll gladly pay.
Cushendall: E Gillan; D Kearney, M Burke, S Walsh; S Delargy (0-1), A Graffin, P Burke (0-1); E Campbell (0-1), N McManus (0-9, 0-6f, 0-1 65’); D McNaughton (0-2, 0-1 line ball), F McCambridge (0-1), R McCambridge; P McGill, S McAfee (1-0), A Delargy
Subs: E McKillop for F McCambridge (42), F McCurry for Graffin (52), C McClafferty for McGill (57), N McCormick for McAfee (64), E Laverty for McNaughton (70)
Yellow cards: R McCambridge (38), D Kearney (38)
Ballycran: S Keith; M Hughes, P Hughes, S Ennis; M Taylor, P Flynn, B Nicholson; S Nicholson (0-2), P Savage; C McAllister, C Woods (0-3, 0-1f), L Savage; N Breen (0-1), C McManus (0-3f), J Coyle (0-1)
Subs: G Hughes for Breen (h-t), C Egan for McAllister (h-t), P McSkimmons for Coyle (67), A Bell for Taylor (68)
Blood replacement: A Bell for Ennis (26-29)
Yellow cards: C Woods (23, 67), C Egan (38), M Hughes (66)
Red card: C Woods (second yellow, 67)
Referee: J Connors (Donegal)
How they rated
Eoin Gillan: Puckouts were well-directed and had great length with the wind in the first half. Little to do in the goalkeeping sense bar one nightmare high ball which he did enough to scramble away for a 65’. 7
David Kearney: Picked up Ballycran’s chief goal threat James Coyle and was dominant throughout. Conceded just a single score and little else. Real good solid display. 8.5
Martin Burke: Had the better of his battle with the powerful Collum McManus in the first half, and although it evened out after the interval, still kept him scoreless from play. 8
Stephen Walsh: Introduced in a surprise change before throw-in but comfortably held his own. Made two great blocks on Niall Breen, who was replaced at half-time. Did well on the more physical Chris Egan too. 8
Paddy Burke: Made a few of his trademark bursts and hit a fine score. Ballycran’s system allowed him to drop off at times and he was an effective spare man. 7
Arron Graffin: Produced a number of inspirational defensive moments to win his duel with Conor Woods, who only got the better for a brief couple of moments in which he scored two points. Horrendous bad luck to suffer another injury. 8.5
Sean Delargy: Marked Cushendall native Conor McAllister out of the game in the first half, while cutting in to fire over a great long-range score. Had a tougher time with Gerard Hughes. 7
Eoghan Campbell: Wasn’t his usual influential self in the first half but when Cushendall were getting it tight, Campbell stood up. Very effective second half, dropping deep and using his positional skills to great effect. 7.5
Neil McManus: Having had a mixed summer on the frees, McManus nailed everything from every angle yesterday. Heavily involved in open play in the first half, he was the subject of a few late slaps but answered them the right way. 8.5
Donal McNaughton: Cushendall’s big physical influence in the first half came from him. A target on puckouts, it was his powerful run that made the goal. Brilliant score from a sideline cut. A real handful. 8
Fergus McCambridge: Hit the game’s opening score from a tight angle but struggled to shake the early attentions of Paudie Flynn and never really got into it. 6
Ryan McCambridge: A massive shift of unfashionable work. Caught ball, carried, took hits, gave hits, and largely used the ball well. A huge physical presence when they needed one. 8
Alex Delargy: Was picked up by the tight-marking Sean Ennis, one of Ballycran’s stars this year, and struggled to get any joy out of it. 5.5
Sean McAfee: Had a brilliant battle with Patrick Hughes, who was outstanding for the beaten side, yet McAfee made every single ball a contest and plugged long enough to get his well-taken goal on the rebound. 6.5
Paddy McGill: With Cushendall going very direct down the middle, McGill struggled to exert much influence in his battle with Michael Hughes. 5.5
Eunan McKillop: A couple of clever touches in attack. 6
Francis McCurry: Solid in the final 20 minutes. 6
Cormac McClafferty: Not on long enough to be rated.
Niall McCormick: Not on long enough to be rated.
Emmett Laverty: Not on long enough to be rated.
Stephen Keith: Couldn’t be faulted for the goal and his poc-outs were steady. 7
Michael Hughes: The Ballycran captain worked hard throughout. 7
Patrick Hughes: He was kept busy and was one of a strong defensive collective. 7
Sean Ennis: Tackled with vigour and played well. 7
Michael Taylor: Was doing just fine before being substituted. 7
Paudie Flynn: Was excellent throughout. 7
Brett Nicholson: Gave Neill McManus too much room in the first half. Improved in the second. 6
Scott Nicholson: Showed flashes of class and then stopped. 6
Phelim Savage: Put in a good shift. 7
Cormac McAllister: Didn’t figure much in the game. 6
Conor Woods: Another player who showed quality before fading out of the game before getting sent off for two yellow cards. 6
Liam Savage: Spend much of his afternoon tracking back. 6
Niall Breen: Struck a point but not much else. 6
Colum McManus: The big man never stopped trying. 7
James Coyle: Didn’t the deliver on the big stage. 6
Chris Egan: Showed plenty of promise. 7
Gerard Hughes: He put in a decent shift. 6
Andrew Bell: Failed to make an impression when introduced. 6