Kilkenny will take solace in the hockey league victory that ensures their promotion to Division 2, but they will remember the cup final as the one that got away.
It is the second year in-a-row that Kilkenny have cruised through to the Challenge Cup final only to come up short on the big day. Last year’s final saw them on the wrong end of a 6-1 defeat to Portran.
The path to Belfield this year was tricky one, but Kilkenny navigated it smoothly. Having been handed a bye in the second round, they hammered Saintfield 12-0 in the quarter-final.
For the semi-final, Kilkenny found themselves in a home match against the PSNI team - a fixture that necessitates the presence of armed gardai at the game. Kilkenny won 6-3, securing their place in last weekend’s final against northern opposition Ballinahinch.
The mood was one of confidence on the bus up to the game at UCD’s Belfield campus, although the two sides had never met before in the cup. Kilkenny started the stronger, overrunning Ballinahinch in the middle of the park early on.
The likes of Lee Chadwick, Stuart Bradley and Evan Matthews were able to create time on the ball, playing short, square passes to the wings, where full backs Richie Dore and Liam Mulligan ventured forward to create the overlap.
At the back, they looked solid. Emmet Hughes coped well with some early danger, and Ballinahinch had very few chances to get into the circle.
Up front, the ’Hinch defence had their hands full with Adam Lynas, who managed to make two interceptions through persistence in closing down the languid passing of the right back.
The pace of the game was relentless.
Hockey’s new rules governing free hits, which now allow players to pass to themselves have sped the game up considerably. Add to this the presence of a sideline ball girl team, and the action is constant, offering players no moment of respite in which to catch their breath.
The absence of an offside rule also stretches defences and opens up the pitch to make for a fast-moving, end-to-end battle on a slick, water-based astro-turf surface.
At 0-0 by half time, it was still anyone’s game. But when Kilkenny reappeared for the second half, they seemed a little off the pace, playing deeper and affording their opposition more time on the ball.
With just 15 minutes left on the clock, Ballinahinch scored.
A gap appeared in the Kilkenny defence, and ‘keeper Omar Mahfoud was left exposed to a two-on-one. 1-0. Within five minutes, Kilkenny had again conceded.
They suddenly began to look tired, and before the end of the match, had given up a further two soft goals. The 4-0 final scoreline is harsh, given Kilkenny’s first half performance, and having held Ballinahinch scoreless until the 55th minute.
“To lose one final is unfortunate, but to lose two is tragic,” said President of the Irish Hockey Association, Herbie Sharman, as he presented the team with their runners-up medals.
Kilkenny will have learned from another cup final defeat, and they now have to turn their focus back to this season’s two remaining matches.
They have already won the league, having not lost a single home game all season. It is a record they are keen to preserve.
Kilkenny: Omar Mahfoud, Neil Kidd, Richie Dore, Liam Mulligan, Emmett Hughes, Stuart Bradley, Dara Chadwick, Eric Comerford (capt), James O’Reilly, Tristan Lynas, Lee Chadwick, Evan Mathews, Adam Lynas, Danny Mulligan, Dave McClure, Sam Grace.
Ballynahinch: Dave Chadwick, Alex Millar, Andrew Mulholland, Ashley Brown, Lee Thomas, Leslie Harrison, Leslie Harrison, Mark Graham (capt), David Bolton, Andrew McIlwaine, Stuart Hunter, Gary Graham, Darren Rose, Lawrence Patterson, David Ross, Grant Hayes, Jason Campbell.
Day to forget
It was a day to forget for Kilkenny, as the women’s team had earlier lost their Challenge Cup decider to Botanic.
Botanic got the early breakthrough when Aoife Nolan pounced on an error in the Kilkenny defence, taking no time to push her side into a fourth minute lead. Eight minutes later Kilkenny were back on level terms, Ciara Lawlor grabbing the goal with a good finish. Spurred on by that goal Kilkenny dominated the next quarter, but it was Botanic who took a 2-1 lead in at half-time after Rhona Quirke scored from play on 23 minutes.
With the lead theirs Botanic took control of the game in the second half, as the pace of Aoife Nolan and Cliona McCullough’s skill kept them in front. McCullough doubled the Botanic lead on 53 minutes, scoring from their first corner of the game, slotting home after a switch from Gillian McCauliffe.
Kilkenny weren’t about to give up and got themselves back in the game in the 57th minute from another penalty corner scored by captain Lynn Darling. The next goal would prove crucial. It came for Botanic when McCullough swept home, restoring her side’s two goal lead. Kilkenny tired hard, pushing for a way back into the game, but they could not find another way past the resolute Botanic defence.
Kilkenny: Pam Farragher, Lucy Dooley, Jenny Wallace, Lynn Darling (capt), Avril Atkinson, Niamh Spratt, Clair Phelan, Sue Shirley, Alice McGarry, Emma Ryan, Aine Buggy, Ciara Lawlor,Alex McClure, Lois Sheehan, Searlait Doyle.
Botanic: Marie McDonnell, Niamh Morrissey (capt), Niamh Fox, Angie Boran, Catherine Brown, Aoife Nolan, Cliona McCullough, Debbie Flanagan, Gillian McAuliffe, Maeve Madigan, Brid Nolan, Rhona Quirke, Mary Esther English, Dee Quinn, Deirdre O Donovan, Niamh Barry.