Marvellous comeback all in vain for Oulart
Their heroic involvement in one of the most gripping club hurling games of modern times will sadly offer no consolation to Oulart-The Ballagh after the dream of Croke Park on March 17 was cruelly ended by Na Piarsaigh of Limerick after extra-time in a captivating contest in Semple Stadium, Thurles, on Saturday.
Na Piarsaigh 1-22 (AET) Oulart-Ballagh 0-20
It was a memorable duel full of twists and turns, with the first-time semi-finalists playing out of their skins as they recovered from a 1-11 to 0-9 deficit in the 40th minute. Oulart-The Ballagh hadn't scored since just before the break and their hopes appeared slim given that their more experienced rivals were playing with the wind.
While they finally re-discovered their scoring touch as Nicky Kirwan landed a brace of frees before the end of the third quarter, it still looked like a tall order to stave off defeat. Alan Dempsey, one half of a very strong Na Piarsaigh midfield duo, and Kirwan (free) swapped points, but the Limerick side looked well on course to make it third time lucky at this stage of the championship when Dempsey pushed them 1-13 to 0-12 clear as we entered the last ten minutes - or so we thought.
Wexford teams have been obliterated by Limerick in recent years at this venue in the Senior and Under-21 grades, but there was no capitulation this time around as Oulart-The Ballagh dug deep and produced the mother and father of all comebacks.
Des Mythen got the ball rolling when he pointed from a tight angle on the right with the minimum to spare. Billy Dunne was the third substitute introduced as fresh legs were sought, and the Oulart-The Ballagh followers who took over the town end of the stand sensed that all was far from lost when a crossfield Rory Jacob pass picked out Nicky Kirwan who made it 1-13 to 0-14 in the 53rd minute.
The pressure was mounting on Na Piarsaigh, with wides from their sole substitute, Adrian Breen, and Ronan Lynch (long-range free) coming on either side of another converted placed ball from Kirwan after Billy Dunne was impeded (1-13 to 0-15).
Veteran Darren Stamp was introduced at full-forward in a last throw of the dice before Billy Dunne took his eye off the ball as a promising move developed up the right wing. However, the teenage attacker kept plugging away and one minute later he was the victim of a late challenge which earned TG4 man of the match Will O'Donoghue a yellow card at the death. Kirwan calmly tapped over the free 29 seconds into added time which led to an extra 20 minutes of action.
Na Piarsaigh did have one late chance to edge the verdict, but Ronan Lynch struck a line ball wide and the teams returned to the dressing-rooms to re-group with roars of approval from an appreciative audience ringing in their ears.
Just like at the outset, Na Piarsaigh won the second toss and again opted to play against the wind. A solo point from inter-county regular Kevin Downes after just eleven seconds was a signal of intent, with Eoin Moore and Adrian Breen exchanging wides before a first-time pull from Darren Stamp was saved by Padge Kennedy after Rory Jacob kept a Kirwan free from distance in play.
Na Piarsaigh looked the more menacing side though as the half progressed, and the fright they received from that Oulart-The Ballagh revival had clearly stung them into action. Another Alan Dempsey point extended their lead to 1-15 to 0-16, with Shane Dowling ('65) and Des Mythen swapping wides before Dowling converted a free.
Although having a quiet enough game by his own high standards, Dowling did set up Will O'Donoghue to widen the gap to four before Eoin Moore managed the sole Oulart-The Ballagh point of that first period of extra-time just before the interval (1-17 to 0-17).
They had done it once before - battling back when facing the elements - although it was always going to be harder to repeat the dose over the reduced ten-minute spell rather than in half an hour. The mentors certainly couldn't be faulted for trying as many combinations as possible, with seven substitutions made in all compared to a mere one from the winners whose only weakness may be a lack of strength in depth.
Still, the players on the field were doing the business again for Na Piarsaigh at this stage, and Alan Dempsey underlined that fact when he picked off his fourth point from midfield less than two minutes after the re-start.
David Redmond had been re-introduced after going off with ten minutes of normal time left, and Oulart-The Ballagh had the chance they needed when he burrowed his way into a dangerous position and was fouled.
They were always going to require a goal or two to advance, and they didn't create any clearcut chances in open play. This time around netminder Conor O'Leary was summoned upfield in a bid to beat the five men on the line, but his 20-metre free flew over the crossbar (1-18 to 0-18).
From that point on Na Piarsaigh weren't going to be caught, with Peter Casey and Eoin Moore exchanging points before Adrian Breen split the posts from a tight angle and Kevin Downes extended his personal tally to four points.
Billy Dunne and Shane Dowling finished the scoring for their respective teams from frees, with Oulart-The Ballagh left to reflect sadly on what might have been. This has been the club's greatest campaign to date and departing manager Frank Flannery has done a magnificent job, but the All-Ireland semi-final is the worst stage of all to lose on, and it won't be easy for anybody of a red and black persuasion to watch Na Piarsaigh playing Cushendall of Antrim on St. Patrick's Day.
Looking back on the earlier exchanges, the concession of the game's only goal with the second-last puck of the opening half will undoubtedly be seen as a key moment. However, what I felt was of more significance was the poor finishing in the first eleven minutes after the break when Oulart-The Ballagh shot all five of their second-half wides tally.
Tommy Storey, Nicky Kirwan (free), Rory Jacob (two) and Garrett Sinnott all missed the target and Na Piarsaigh were let off the hook, particularly as they had to work hard for two of their own three points in that same period. While Shane Dowling had a 50-50 record from a couple of frees, David Dempsey and Kevin Downes did extend their lead to 1-11 to 0-9 before Oulart-The Ballagh produced the bravest 20 minutes of hurling I have seen from a Wexford team in a long time.
Their cause hadn't been helped beforehand with the loss of injury-prone defensive stalwart Paul Roche. And, just as few outsiders would have predicted the influence of Tomás Dunne on the Leinster final, Frank Flannery pulled another rabbit from the hat by handing Anthony Roche his first-ever start at Senior level.
Not alone that, but the rookie found himself on the edge of the square after a fascinating battle of tactical wits emerged early on. Na Piarsaigh captain Cathal King won the toss and opted to face the wind, with Rory Jacob drifting out around midfield and initially being followed by corner-back Kieran Kennedy.
However, during a lull in play just before the five-minute mark, Kennedy was ordered back to mind the house and full-forward David Dempsey went out to keep tabs on Jacob instead. When this happened, Anthony Roche switched from marking Dempsey to picking up Kevin Downes, while Keith Rossiter played as the free man.
Na Piarsaigh's spare performer at the back was outstanding number six Ronan Lynch and, with his textbook reading of the play, and midfielder Will O'Donoghue always on hand to supply an outlet for the short pass, the Munster champions settled impressively into the game after taking ten minutes to get their bearings.
Oulart-The Ballagh forged a deserved 0-4 to 0-1 lead in that spell, with Garrett Sinnott winning a Rory Jacob delivery and opening their account before the lively Shaun Murphy fired over a second from long range.
David Redmond never quite seemed to be himself after picking up a knock in the fourth minute, and this explains his removal and subsequent return later in the game. Indeed, he even started the second-half at full-forward before Rory Jacob moved in closer to goal.
Nicky Kirwan earned a free in the fifth minute and then knocked it over before David Dempsey got Na Piarsaigh off the mark midway through the opening quarter, but Kirwan cut out a sloppy crossfield ball by Cathal King and pushed Oulart-The Ballagh back into a three-point lead for the third time.
Na Piarsaigh prospered from the growing influence of Ronan Lynch as they drew level with unanswered points from Shane Dowling (play and free) and Peter Casey. Rory Jacob had the third and final first-half wide for his side after earlier misses from David Redmond and Nicky Kirwan (free), before Tommy Storey restored their advantage with a lovely finish from a low Redmond pass (0-5 to 0-4).
It was exciting stuff and, although Na Piarsaigh enjoyed another three-point burst through Kevin Downes and David Breen (two), it should have been four as Dowling missed a very handy free.
Two quick-fire Kirwan frees levelled matters for the third time, and Ronan Lynch restored the Caherdavin men's lead from a placed ball before a couple of neat scores from Des Mythen. The industry of Garrett Sinnott created the first, robbing Mike Casey before Kirwan fed Mythen with a handpass, and the second effort was also a fine team score as Eoin Moore drilled a free down the left flank to Rory Jacob who located the scorer close at hand.
Sadly, those points weren't enough for Oulart-The Ballagh to enjoy a half-time lead, albeit by the minimum after playing with the wind. Instead, Na Piarsaigh struck at the worst possible time when Ronan Lynch seemed to take two touches on his pick-up from a free after his hurl got stuck in the ground, but still managed to guide the sliothar goalwards.
The Oulart-The Ballagh followers immediately roared their disapproval, but referee Fergal Horgan either didn't notice or didn't see anything wrong with Lynch's pick and strike action.
Big David Breen caught it, turned and struck low and hard past Conor O'Leary, leaving Na Piarsaigh in the driving seat, or so it seemed.
The Limerick side eventually got there in the end, but they will be eternally grateful for the powerful challenge Oulart-The Ballagh provided as it will surely stand to them when they go in search of the Tommy Moore Cup next month.
Oulart-The Ballagh: Conor O'Leary (0-1 free); Barry Kehoe (capt.), Anthony Roche, Keith Rossiter; Kevin Sheridan, Shaun Murphy (0-1), Eoin Moore (0-2, 1 free); David Redmond, Michael Jacob; Tommy Storey (0-1), Des Mythen (0-3), Peter Murphy; Rory Jacob, Garrett Sinnott (0-1), Nicky Kirwan (0-10, 8 frees). Subs. - Tomás Dunne for P. Murphy (42), Kevin Nimmo for M. Jacob (44), Billy Dunne (0-1 free) for Redmond (51), Darren Stamp for T. Dunne (58), Stephen Doyle for Sinnott (70+1), Redmond for Mythen (HT ET), Darren Nolan for Kirwan (72).
Na Piarsaigh: Padge Kennedy; Mike Casey, Kieran Breen, Kieran Kennedy; Mike Foley, Ronan Lynch (0-1 free), Cathal King (capt.); Alan Dempsey (0-4), Will O'Donoghue (0-1); Shane Dowling (0-5, 4 frees), David Breen (1-2), Kevin Ryan; Kevin Downes (0-4), David Dempsey (0-2), Peter Casey (0-2). Sub. - Adrian Breen (0-1) for Ryan (38).
Referee: Fergal Horgan (Tipperary).