Hurling and camogie

Nothing separates Ballycran and Portaferry ahead of Down SHC final replay

Daithi Sands is a fitness doubt for today's Down SHC final replay against Ballycran

Morgan Fuels Down Senior Hurling Championship final replay: Portaferry v Ballycran (today, Ballygalget, 4pm)

 

NO better day on the Ards peninsula than last week’s epic Down final that finished all-square after 80 breathless minutes of hurling.

Warriors with helmets and sticks, club colours black and amber and blue and yellow painted onto their souls and nobody giving an inch under gorgeous blue Ballygalget skies.

If you don’t get a ticket for this afternoon’s intriguing replay, there’s always the side of the road and peering over the hedge to watch another battle of wills and boundless skill between two old rivals.

Last Saturday evening’s duel between champions Ballycran and Portaferry had everything.

Great scores, great individual displays, hard but fair hits, brilliant defending and dramatic equalisers in stoppage-time of normal time and extra-time.

You could make a compelling case for either side last weekend, but it was Ballycran – aiming for three-in-a-row – who needed late equalisers on two occasions to stay in the game.

If today’s replay reaches anywhere near the heights of the first game, both sets of players and management teams will be doing well.

Indeed, the silverware could be decided by who doesn’t play rather than who does.

Numerous players from either team limped out of the trenches last Saturday evening with the physios in both camps earning their crust ahead of today’s second meeting.

Both managers wanted an extra week’s rest but given the spectre of Covid19, the county board couldn’t cede to their request.

Portaferry manager Gary Smyth said: “We’ve got about four on the injury list - and I know ‘Gazza’ [Ballycran manager Gary Savage] is under pressure too.

“Daithi [Sands] hasn’t trained this week at all. Callum Smyth is struggling and Darragh Mallon is 50-50. Tom Murray is struggling. Eoghan Sands has had a calf strain going into last week’s match and it didn’t help he was cramping up.”

Ballycran have their own walking wounded. Liam Savage, the manager’s son who had a super game at midfield, and Christopher Egan have been ruled out and wing-back Paddy Hughes is struggling to make it.

“As ‘Gazza’ said, if we had another week to prepare we could have gone toe to toe again. So I don’t know if this will be as bruising. I know ‘Gazza’ will be keeping his cards close to his chest but people could see the boys who were injured.”

While Portaferry can justifiably claim they were unlucky not to seal the deal and land their first senior title since 2014, ‘Cran had dominant periods in the game too.

They hit a purple patch in both halves with Scott Nicholson’s penetrating runs from the middle of the field causing the Portaferry defence all sorts of problems in those periods of ascendancy.

If Nicholson was hard to handle so, too, was Daithi Sands of Portaferry who was unmarkable in the second half and emerged in extra-time after a quiet spell to find the net for a second time in the game.

The younger Sands has been on a course of antibiotics in the build-up after a hand wound re-opened in the first game.

Portaferry’s long early ball into the corners nullified Conor Woods in the sweeper’s role which probably accounted for the high number of fouls the Ballycran defence gave away, with free-taker Padraig Doran taking full advantage.

Keeping the foul count down is one of Gary Savage’s key objectives in this replay.

Throughout the game Portaferry amassed 16 wides – a figure Gary Smyth will be equally keen in lowering.

“We knew what to expect from Ballycran,” said Smyth.

“We need to bring the same levels of intensity again. I thought we’d done enough to get over the line. We’d 16 wides. Conor Mageean put his hand up on Tuesday night and said he was culpable for four of them. If those had gone over the bar we wouldn’t have been talking about Conor Woods’ late equaliser, we would have been talking about Conor Mageean.

“Eoghan Sands, who is deadly in front of goal, missed four. On another day we could have won by 10 points and yet we could easily have lost the match too.”

Caolan Taggart has been a rock at the edge of the square for Portaferry but he took responsibility for allowing Woods’ last-gasp free to end up in the net after the ball hit the crossbar and bounced off the back of his helmet and into the goal.

“Caolan has been down on himself all week,” revealed Smyth.

“He put an apology into the group. We’re all in this together. Caolan is one of the best players in Ulster. Between him and John McManus [Ballygalget] you wouldn’t find two better defenders. If there’s a ball dropping into the square you want it to be dropping to Caolan.

Smyth added: “To be honest, we can’t wait for the game. We want to right the wrongs of the first match. We’ve won two championships in 10 years – that can’t be right.”

If the Sands brothers are passed fit, Portaferry will be quietly confident they can take home the Jeremiah McVeagh Cup for the first time in six years.

But Ballycran have Scott Nicholson, Woods, James Coyle – and a manager who roared in the face of defeat during his playing days and now as manager.

It could be breathless in Ballygalget again, with Portaferry falling over the finish line.

Paths to the final

Portaferry

Round Robin

Portaferry 2-18 Ballycran 0-25

Bredagh 0-13 Portaferry 4-19

Ballygalget 0-14 Portaferry 1-15

Ballycran 0-13 Portaferry 1-18

Portaferry 3-25 Bredagh 1-17

Portaferry 2-19 Ballygalget 0-17

Final 

Ballycran 2-18 Portaferry 2-18 (aet)

Ballycran

Round Robin

Portaferry 2-18 Ballycran 0-25

Ballycran 0-24 Ballygalget 2-12

Ballycran 2-30 Bredagh 1-12

Ballycran 0-13 Portaferry 1-18

Ballygalget 3-13 Ballycran 0-17

Bredagh 2-17 Ballycran 0-16

Final

Ballycran 2-18 Portaferry 2-18 (aet)

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Hurling and camogie