There are games that take winning, and games that take winning, but this was an Everest like climb to the summit for a team with soul.
In their proud history the Rower-Inistioge have won and lost great contests. Sunday’s victory over brave, ever so brave Buffers Alley (Wexford) in the Leinster club intermediate hurling final will rank up there with the finest of victories.
The hurling wasn’t wildly expressive or garnished with golden touches. The tight confines of the well prepared Enniscorthy pitch imposed a will of its own on the contest. It was tough, hard going all the way.
For sheer honesty of effort, and as something to be held up as an example of how far men will push themselves in pursuit of a cherished goal, this final took matching.
“It was the hardest game I ever played in,” was the apt comment from one of the heroes of the hour, Joe Lyng, who was still struggling for breath when we spoke minutes after the final whistle.
With the closing seconds of normal time ticking down nothing was decided. It was all square, 0-10 to 1-7. Then the ’Alley made what turned out to be a fatal error. A poorly taken line ball on their left about 50 metres from goal turned over possession to Sean Grace only metres from the taker. Grace headed for the target, eventually getting the ball forward to sub Ciaran Ryan on the opposite wing.
From a bad angle inside the 20 metre line Ryan hit the target. It was the 60th minute. Forty seconds on the mighty Joe Lyng scraped out possession somewhere near midfield and found wing-back, Sean Lyster in full stride with a short hand-pass. The ‘assist’ won a metre of room. It was enough for Lyster to swing the stick. The sliotar sailed between the posts.
There was no time for Buffers Alley to save the day. The puck-out took the ball to midfield, and the last whistle sounded when it fell to the ground. The Rower-Inistioge were Leinster champions for the first time. Simple! Well, not really!
There was nothing simple about this demanding, energy sapping clash. It took effort, more effort and then more effort again to win every ball, to harvest any gain. No one took a step back! The tone was set during the opening minutes when Padraig Tierney was felled and a player from each side was booked after a skirmish. By the sixth minute there was a third name in the referee’s book.
It wasn’t that the exchanges were nasty. No! They were full on. The combatants tore into each other. There was no time on the ball, no room for ‘Fancy Dan’ hurling. This was ‘get ball and deliver’ stuff.
The ’Alley posed the most threat during the opening half. Inspired wing-forward Andrew Kenny was their potential destroyer as he helped himelf to five points from play. With additions from Thomas Dempsey and Keith Burke (2) they led by 0-8 to 0-5 at the break.
The Rower started well playing towards the road end. Conor Joyce controlled a lovely high ball before shooting the opening point. Michael Grace (free) won them the lead again with the third score of the match in the fifth minute.
The spacing of their subsequent scores - Kieran Joyce (free) 24th; Cathal Bolger 26th and Joe Lyng 27th minutes - hinted at the troubles they had piercing a tight home defence in which Bobby, Ciaran and Barry Kenny were excellent and goalie Seamus Kavanagh cleared up a good bit of short dropping ball.
A summary of proceedings suggested fractions could decide it in the end. So it was!
The opening five minutes of the new half were harvest time for the Rower. First Cathal Bolger was sent flying up the left wing by Sean Grace before shooting a lovely point. On 35 minutes Sean Lyster worked the ball to David Lyng, who in turn put Sean Grace in space. The midfielder pushed forward and worked an opening for David Lyng to come back in on the act to finish to the net.
The Rower were back in front, 1-6 to 0-8. From here home it was survival hurling all the way. The ’Alley got back level in the 42nd minute when Shane Grannell ran off the edge of the square to receive from Barry Kenny before scoring.
The next 13 minutes produced one score, a lead point for the losers from Thomas O’Leary. If scores were rare it was because of the discipline and excellence of defences. There was no let up of the full on effort.
The Rower defence was simply superb, one man better than the next. Sean Cummins and the herculean Kieran Joyce held the centre like we image those in the Alamo repelled Santa Anna and his charging troops. Eoin Doyle was terrific too, and goalie Liam Tierney had a relatively easy afternoon.
The winners attack couldn’t make headway, and three subs were thrown into the fray. Two of them, Paul Sheehan and Ciaran Ryan produced scores. On one occasion, in the 53rd minute, Joe Lyng and Michael Grace combined for the latter to test the goalie. A 65 hard won produced nothing.
Eventually in the 55th minute the Rower caught up, Sheehan taking the honours from 52 metres after a foul on Grace (0-10 to 1-7). As the tension rose to fever pitch, Joe Lyng and Ryan missed the target as the Cats tried to push on.
Joyce and company had the door bolted at the other end, but there was always the danger of an error deciding it. A badly struck lineball eventually led to the undoing of the ’Alley.
Scorers: Rower-Inistioge - David Lyng (1-0); Cathal Bolger (0-2); Sean Lyster, Conor Joyce, Joe Lyng, Ciaran Ryan (0-1 each); Kieran Joyce (0-1, free); Michael Grace (0-1, free); Paul Sheehan (0-1, free). Buffers Alley - Andrew Kenny (0-5); Keith Burke (0-2, one free); Thomas Dempsey, Shane Grannell, Tomas O’Leary (0-1 each).
Rower-Inistioge - Liam Tierney, Eoin Doyle, Sean Cummins, James Doyle, Ruairi Galavan, Kieran Joyce, Sean Lyster, Sean Grace, Padraig Tierney, Michael Grace (capt), David Lyng, Conor Joyce, Cathal Bolger, Joe Lyng, James Cassin. Subs - Paul Sheehan for J. Cashin; Ciaran Ryan for P. Tierney; Tom Murphy for D. Lyng.
Buffers Alley - S. Kavanagh, R. Kirwan, B. Kenny, P. Reidy, K. Roche, C. Kenny, B. Kenny, T. Dempsey, S. Og Whelan, S. Grannell, W. Doran, K. Burke (capt), A. Kenny, T. O’Leary, P. Roche. Subs - R. O’Leary for P. Roche.
Ref - A. Stapleton (Laois).