AIB All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: O’Loughlin Gaels (Kilkenny) 1-17 Ruairi Og, Cushendall (Antrim) 1-16
From Brendan Crossan in Navan
DEVASTATION and pride were the competing emotions among the brave hurlers of Cushendall yesterday after a quite magnificent All-Ireland semi-final joust with Kilkenny kingpins O’Loughlin Gaels in Navan.
David Fogarty’s wonderful score three minutes into stoppage-time was the killer blow for the Antrim and Ulster champions.
And yet, Brian Delargy’s men still had chances to pull this incredible contest out of the fire in the remaining seconds.
But when you bare your soul in the way the Ruairi Og players did in Pairc Tailteann yesterday, it would just seem downright churlish to criticise the handful of misses that enabled O’Loughlin Gaels to book an All-Ireland final meeting with St Thomas’s of Galway on January 20, only the second time they’ve reached the decider in their history.
Paddy Burke, Neil McManus, Fergus McCambridge, Joe McLaughlin and Ed McQuillan all had good chances to score in the final quarter.
In the immediate aftermath, McManus blamed himself for not finding the target in the last attack of the game that would have forced extra-time – even though he missed O’Loughlin Gaels’ goalposts by inches.
Afterwards, McManus’s overwhelming emotion was one of “pride” after the Ruairi Ogs had taken the entire north Antrim village on an unforgettable journey since August.
“There was a lot of effort put into this, probably about three years if I’m honest,” McManus said.
“I’d be incredibly proud of how we acquitted ourselves the whole way through.
“I always say, there are two things you can do in hurling and in sport: you can prepare really, really well, and then you can give it your absolute best effort on the day.
“Cushendall do that nearly every day they go out. I’d be very proud of the club, the players and the management.
“It’s a terrific group, but we weren’t as sharp as other days today. O’Loughlin Gaels probably just about deserved it.”
Despite the pre-match odds heavily weighted in favour of O’Loughlin Gaels, this second semi-final in Navan had all the hallmarks of being as close as Saturday night’s first semi-final thriller between St Thomas’s and Ballygunner.
And with a strong breeze at their backs in the first half, it looked like being Cushendall’s day.
Navan proved a happy hunting ground for the north Antrim men when they overcame Sarsfields of Galway in 2016 there to reach their first-ever All-Ireland final.
That day, they raced out of the blocks and built up an unassailable lead that Sarsfields never threatened.
To say Cushendall were ferocious in the opening 10 minutes of yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final would be the understatement of the year.
It’s impossible to remember a team that tackled, hooked, blocked and ran as hard as the Ruairi Ogs did in the opening period. And their shooting in those early moments was off the charts too.
On five minutes, Kilkenny’s defensive ace Mikey Butler coughed up possession in the corner of the field and when the ball was popped into young Joseph McLaughlin, he hammered it under Stephen Murphy in the O’Loughlin Gaels goal from a tight angle.
Cushendall led 1-4 to no score after six utopian minutes of hurling and led 1-6 to 0-1 on 13 minutes.
“When you’re playing against the wind in the first half, you’re trying to hold out and keep the score to a minimum,” said O’Loughlin Gaels match-winner David Fogarty.
“It’s not ideal when you go down 1-4 to no score.
“Cushendall brought that fight to the game. We were expecting that. In fairness to Mark Bergin and Seanie Bolger, they hit a couple of scores, it settled us and we were able to relax a bit.
“Going in at half-time we were only three down (1-10 to 1-7).”
The gap might have been more had Ed McQuillan’s low pile-driver not come off the foot of O’Loughlin Gaels post in the 21st minute.
Nevertheless, the most impressive aspect of O’Loughlin Gaels’ performance was how they steadied themselves in that critical second quarter and uncovered a flaw in the opposition’s defence.
Luke Hogan got a couple of runs on Cushendall full-back Liam Gillan.
A quick re-wire saw Paddy Burke move to Hogan and Gillan to Bolger and it did stem the flow – but it still didn’t stop the Kilkenny men taking one of their first-half goal chances.
Hogan’s initial shot was brilliantly saved by Conor McAlister - but Bolger was on hand to bundle the ball home from close range four minutes before the break.
Within two minutes of the restart, the Leinster men had wiped out Cushendall’s three-point half-time lead through Mark Bergin (0-2) and Eoin O’Shea.
It was at that juncture, O’Loughlin Gaels threatened to romp into the January 20 All-Ireland final.
But one of the lessons from yesterday’s compelling encounter was never underestimate the size of a Ruairi Og player’s heart.
They game-managed their way into the game again and employed an astute puck-out that flummoxed their opponents a couple of times.
Ryan McCambridge, Martin and Paddy Burke, Campbell, McManus and substitute Aidan McNaughton were all magnificent in helping stem the tide.
Even when O’Loughlin Gaels edged in front for the first time on 51 minutes through Bergin and then went two ahead through Jack Nolan a couple of minutes later, Cushendall rallied superbly.
Joe McLaughlin and McManus hauled them level in stoppage-time before Fogarty sent over the winner in the 63rd minute from a distance out.
Chances arrived for Cushendall in the dying embers but it wasn’t meant to be their day.
This was a thrilling game of inches right to the end.
When McManus swivelled and narrowly missed his target, Cushendall’s race was run.
For most of the year, it was very much the unspoken - but the passing of club stalwart John McKillop in July was a driving force for this Cushendall team.
But, as McManus said, ‘Wee John’ will always be in the players’ thoughts whether they win or they lose.
“On game-day you’re thinking about how you want to play mainly,” McManus said.
“But John is in our thoughts all the time. If you’re from Cushendall and you wear maroon and white, he’d be in your thoughts. He was the greatest Ruairi Og we ever had.”
O’Loughlin Gaels: S Murphy; T Forristal, H Lawlor, M Butler; D Fogarty (0-2), P Deegan (0-1), J Molloy; J Nolan (0-1), C Loy; M Bergin (0-9, 0-5 frees), E O’Shea (0-1), C Heary (0-2); O Wall, L Hogan, S Bolger (1-1) Subs: C Kelly for S Bolger (45), J Ryan for J Nolan (54), P Butler for E O’Shea
Ruairi Og, Cushendall: C McAlister; P Burke (0-1), L Gillan, M Burke; Scott Walsh, E Campbell (0-2), A McNaughton; F McCurry, R McCambridge (0-1); R McAteer (0-1), N McManus (0-9, 0-7 frees), F McCambridge; E McQuillan (0-1), N McCormack, J McLaughlin (1-1) Subs: S McAfee for R McAteer (23 inj), A Delargy for N McCormack (h/t), A McNaughton for L Gillan (h/t), C McNaughton for F McCurry (59)
Referee: M Kennedy (Tipperary)