Hurling and camogie

Rossa reach first final in 17 years in dramatic win over Cushendall

Rossa's Michael Armstrong celebrates after scoring as the Belfast men booked their final spot against Dunloy Picture: Seamus Loughran.
From Brendan Crossan at Dunsilly

Antrim Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: O’Donovan Rossa, Belfast 4-18 Ruairi Og Cushendall 3-20

THERE were bear hugs, tears of joy everywhere you turned and guttural roars that rebounded off the skies above Dunsilly yesterday afternoon.

The hurlers of O’Donovan Rossa celebrated a magnificent, last-gasp semi-final victory over Cushendall to reach their first county decider since they last won it in 2004, thanks to a late goal from substitute Dara Rocks.

It’s been a long time coming for the west Belfast men in a club championship that keeps on giving.

Yesterday's first semi-final produced seven stunning goals and unbelievable entertainment.

Last season, Colly Murphy’s men suffered a devastating semi-final loss to champions Dunloy.

Never one to accept the natural order of things, the Belfast men came firing back in 2021 to prove that last year’s quarter-final victory over Cushendall was no fluke and that the Glens no longer had a divine claim on the coveted silverware.

How they managed back-to-back championship wins over Cushendall yesterday, though, takes some explaining.

They trailed by three points deep into stoppage-time after Ruairi Og substitute Paddy McGill capitalised on a terrible mix-up in the Rossa defence to raise a green flag to lead 3-20 to 3-17.

But with seconds remaining, Rossa somehow pulled this enthralling semi-final out of the fire.

First, Gerard Walsh’s free sailed over to cut the deficit to two. And in the next play there was still time for Walsh – moved from midfield to full-back after the break - to send in a high, hopeful ball from distance that was plucked out of the air by Michael Armstrong.

The former county ace turned and popped the ball off to Rocks on his right side who fired the ball low and between Eoin Gillan’s legs to ripple Cushendall’s net for a fourth and final time.

Victory was finally secured.

It was no more than what O'Donovan Rossa deserved. They’d fashioned five-point leads in the 43rd and 53rd minutes - but still couldn’t shake off their north Antrim rivals.

Rather than bemoan Rossa’s lack of killer instinct in the second period, you could only applaud Cushendall’s warrior resistance – something they’ve turned into an art form in recent years.

They’re a team that just doesn’t know when they’re beaten.

Still getting his breath back from the on-field celebrations and then trying to put a lid on the hype in the post-match huddle, Colly Murphy praised the fighting spirit of both sets of players.

“It was a 50-50 game,” he said.

“I thought we had them beat after the end of the first water break in the second half when we got those couple of goals, and then Cushendall showed what a team they are. They are a fantastic team with fantastic players. If we played them tomorrow, they’d beat us by a point.”

Before trying to make sense of yesterday’s crazy semi-final, some performances bordered on the heroic.

Take a bow Michael Armstrong. The Rossa man was roasted at full-back by Neil McManus in the first half. Murphy resisted the temptation to substitute Armstrong at the break and instead pushed him into full-forward.

It proved an inspired decision. From there, Armstrong grabbed two majors – in the 35th and 43rd minutes – and set up the winning goal for Rocks.

Deaglan Murphy – one of three of the manager’s sons on the starting XV – helped himself to six points, but it was the Rossa playmaker’s intelligence and decision-making in pressure moments that left a lasting impression on this semi-final.

Rossa boss Colly Murphy paid tribute to his players' conditioning after yesterday's semi-final win Picture: Seamus Loughran

Stephen Beatty also produced a stunning display, hitting three brilliant first-half points before breaking out of a ruck to volley the ball into the Cushendall net after 53 minutes that put the Belfast men five ahead.

But Fred McCurry found Rossa's net from close range in the 57th minute and McGill’s 62nd minute major seemed to finally turn the game in Cushendall’s favour.

But Rossa would have the last laugh.

Cushendall’s Scott Walsh, Eoghan Campbell, Neil McManus and Niall McCormack couldn’t have given any more of themselves in trying to reach this year’s county decider.

“I thought it was over,” Murphy admitted.

“We were in injury-time and three points down and to do what the players did was just fantastic. The subs that came on just pushed it on again.

“Our fitness and conditioning are unbelievable; they went right to the end. They were getting knocks and hits, they were hurt but they were still able to battle on. The hard work they did in the gym was proof of that. They are a pleasure to coach and a pleasure to watch.”

Very little separated the sides in a subdued opening half but Cushendall were in the ascendency approaching the interval when Paddy Burke raced clear on 23 minutes from his right wing half-forward position to claim the first goal of the day, while McManus had the upper hand on Armstrong on the edge of the square.

Indeed, Cushendall could have been further ahead at the break than 1-8 to 0-9 after Donal Armstrong made a stunning save to deny Fred McCurry while Christy McNaughton’s radar from placed balls began to desert him.

Armstrong felt liberated by the move to full-forward in the second half and his movement for his first of two majors in the 35th minute was superb – picked out by Tiernan Murphy with a smashing pass.

Eight minutes later, Armstrong collected Daire Murphy’s effort that landed invitingly on top of the Cushendall full-back line before racing clear to kick the ball to the net.

Beatty produced a replica of Armstrong’s kicked finish in the 53rd minute – but it only made Cushendall more determined as they raised two green flags of their own towards the end.

Heads bowed by a crushing final act, Cushendall left Dunsilly with their reputation enhanced.

But it's Rossa and defending champions Dunloy who will debate this year's mouthwatering decider in 13 days' time.

O’Donovan Rossa: D Armstrong, C Orchin, M Armstrong (2-0), A Orchin, Stephen Shannon (0-1), A Kenneally (0-1), A O’Brien (0-1), G Walsh (0-2, 0-1 free), Seaghan Shannon, Deaghan Murphy (0-6, 0-4 frees), C McGuinness (0-1), Daire Murphy (0-1), T Murphy, S Beatty (1-3), D McEnhill Subs: T Morgan for D McEnhill (h/t), E Trainor (0-1) for Seaghan Shannon (46), C Shannon (0-1) for D Murphy (47), R Rocks (1-0) for C McGuinness (55), C McGettigan for A Orchin (60+3)

Ruairi Og, Cushendall: E Gillan; R McCambridge, M Burke, J McCurry; S Walsh (0-3), A Graffin, R McCollum; E Campbell (0-2), A Delargy (0-1); P Burke (1-0), C McNaughton (0-4 frees), A McNaughton (0-1); F McCurry (1-1), N McManus (0-6, 0-2 frees), N McCormack (0-1) Subs: F McCambridge (0-1) for C McNaughton (45), C Carson for R McCollum (52), P McGill (1-0) for A Delargy (58)

Yellow cards: A Delargy (38), C Carson (64)

Referee: C Cunning (Dunloy)

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Hurling and camogie