Three in-a-row-chasing Ballycran take on arch-rivals Portaferry in Down Senior Hurling Championship decider
Down Senior Hurling Championship final: Portaferry v Ballycran (today, Ballygalget, 4.30pm)
MEMORIES of last year’s final, lost by seven points to their arch-rivals, still haunt the Portaferry camp.
The 2018 decider had been nip-and-tuck all the way to the dramatic climax when Conor Woods struck a last-gasp winner but in 2019 there was clear daylight between the neighbours and Ballycran won by seven points.
Today the Ards rivals meet in their third consecutive county decider and the form line (which can be taken with a pinch of salt) shows that tomorrow’s combatants face-off after contrasting performances in the last round of games in the four-team round-robin series.
Ballycran, up first, were turned over by against unfancied Belfast outfit Bredagh whose victory opened the door for Ballygalget to make the final. Needing a draw with Portaferry, ’Galget started well but when, push came to shove, Portaferry were exceptional and went on to win a pulsating battle by eight points.
As soon as the final whistle was blown, the mind games began with Portaferry manager Gary Smith hailing his side as “the best team in the county” but insisting that Ballycran were favourites in the final.
“They’re the champions, they’re going for three in-a-row and we have to stop them,” said Smith, who’ll be a vocal presence on the line tomorrow. We’re not the favourites by any stretch of the imagination.”
Smith’s side has the quality and pace required to win an intense battle and to negate the threat of a Portaferry half-forward line that includes the quick and skilful Daithi Sands, Conor Mageean and Ronan Blair, the performances of Ballycran half-backs (Brett Nicholson, Michael Ennis and James Coyle) will be pivotal.
Daithi Sands and brother Eoghan will cause the Ballycran defence headaches all afternoon if they see enough of the ball and Blair is a reliable dead-ball specialist who hit 10 points in the win over Ballyglaget.
“We’re through to the final against our arch-rivals,” said a delighted Blair after the win a fortnight ago.
“Ballycran have beaten us in the past few finals so it would be good to get one over on them. The first year we were unlucky but they beat us out the gate last year, so we’ll be out to get them this year.”
Matthew Conlan’s industry and tenacity in midfield forced the Ballygalget defence into conceding half-a-dozen of the frees Blair converted so ably. Unsung hero Conlan got his hands on a lot of primary possession from Paddy McNally’s puck-outs last time out but today himself and Aaron O’Prey will be up against the equally hard-working Scott Nicholson and Phelim Savage.
Caolan Taggart against Conor Woods (Ballycran’s hero in the 2018 final) is another of the intriguing battles that will rage all over the field. Last time these sides met, Portaferry’s defence crowded out the out-numbered Ballycran half-forward line and Woods will need more support if he is to flourish in the final.
Ballycran manager Gary Savage concedes that his side needs to find the form of last year to hold on to their title.
“We’re up against it,” he said.
“Portaferry are strong favourites but what happened before is over and done with, we’ll give it everything we have and, if we do that, hopefully it will be enough. We know what to expect, we know what Eoghan and Daithi are like and the O’Preys and Mageean. We have to match them and more.
“I hope that at half-five tomorrow evening, ‘old big ears’ (the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup) will be coming home.
Both sides will have their gameplans but, as ever, the result of this derby will hinge on which team wins the 50-50s and 60-40s. Over the last month or so, that team has been Portaferry and so they get the nod to end a six-year wait for “old big ears”.
Path to the final:
Sunday September 6
St Patrick's, Portaferry 2-19 Ballygalget 0-17; Bredagh 2-17 Ballycran 0-16
Sunday August 30
Ballygalget 3-13 Ballycran 0-17; St Patrick's, Portaferry 3-25 Bredagh 1-17
Sunday August 23Ballycran 0-13 St Patrick's, Portaferry 1-18; Bredagh 1-19 Ballygalget 1-20
Tuesday August 18
Ballycran 2-30 Bredagh 1-12
Sunday, August 16
Ballygalget 0-14 St Patrick's, Portaferry1-15
Wednesday August 12
Bredagh 0-13 St Patrick's, Portaferry 4-19; Ballycran 0-24 Ballygalget 2-12
Friday, August 7
St Patrick's, Portaferry 2-18 Ballycran 0-25; Ballygalget 1-23 Bredagh 1-12