It was close, desperately close, but St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) were deserving winners of the All-Ireland junior club hurling final in Croke Park on Saturday.
The Kilkenny champions opened well and for the first quarter looked in full control. But all changed in the 14th minute when Charleville got their first score. It was now game on as the Cork challengers finally awoke from their slumber to deliver a far more competitive challenge.
Ballyragget’s early dominance came from the powerful play of Seoirse Kenny and Geoff Morrissey, the anchor men in attack and defence. On four separate occasions in the opening 12 minutes the Charleville goalie looked far from assured when batting out the ball, but Ballyragget failed to capitalise.
When Charleville finally got off the mark they started to show the qualities that brought them to Croke Park. A couple of positional switches helped, but Ballyragget appeared to have switched off for a period.
The Kilkenny champions were coming under incessant pressure and the switch of Bill Staunton from full-forward was crucial in coping with the Charleville challenge.
Despite the big improvement from Charleville, Ballyragget should have led at the interval as their attack squandered at least four easy point-scoring opportunities.
As the teams headed off to the dressing rooms at the interval Ballyragget knew that they would need to be far more clinical in front of goal. They clearly heeded the manager’s wise words, because right from the throw-in Bill Staunton shot a point.
One minute later he scored another (which probably should have been a goal).
Another point from Brian Phelan edged the Kilkenny side ahead by three and now all the momentum was with Ballyragget. Charleville, though, responded as one would expect from any side representing Cork, but when Seoirse Kenny evaded a despairing challenging from the Charleville full-back to score a goal, Ballyragget was firmly back in charge of its destiny.
One thought that Kenny’s effort was the game-deciding score, but it galvanised Charleville to greater effort. Those efforts were rewarded minutes later with an excellent goal which Michael Gannon in the Ballyragget goal had no chance of stopping.
Switches were required from Ballyragget to halt the Charleville surge and once again the team mentors came up with a couple of moves that decided the game. Joe Brennan enjoyed greater freedom at right half forward, but perhaps more importantly it was the switch of Kevin Kelly to midfield which had the most telling impact.
Kelly did great work in the closing 10 minutes, tidying up in defence as Charleville piled on the pressure in search of the lead. If those positional changes helped enormously to achieve Ballyragget’s success, it was ultimately the powerful and consistent hurling from Bill Staunton which secured the title.
He was terrific and deservedly won the ‘man of the match’ award. He had plenty of competition from his defensive colleagues for that personal accolade.
Jeff Morrissey and Geoff Brennan were rock solid in the middle of the Ballyragget defence, but over the hour the display from Stephen Roberts was flawless.
This time last year Ballyragget would have been the favourites to win this title, but many hurdles lay ahead. Those hurdles were slowly cleared and it was left to last Saturday evening’s final to see the character and resolve of the side really tested.
It was a tense and exciting 10 minutes for all Ballyragget supporters, but one had to admire the manner in which the side grafted at the finish.