Congratulations Bennettsbridge! Congratulations Thomastown! While the rules of the competition were met in full by producing a winner and loser, the real winner after this minor hurling Roinn A marathon final was the game itself.
Two talented, disciplined, well balanced and finely tuned teams battled through a draw and replay, plus extra-time, to produce one of the finest deciders in decades and at the end of it all a mere four points divided them.
Bennettsbridge somehow found that little something extra in the tank during extra-time when a take of six points was good enough to earn them their third title as an independent club, and first since 1983. They do, of course, share a fourth title won with Clara in 1974.
It was the eventual winners who needed a late point in normal time, a 59th minute effort from midfielder Enda Morrissey, to draw the match at 1-8 to 0-11 and force the issue to extra-time after a second hour of cracking hurling.
Of course there had been scares and near misses beforehand that might have tilted the balance – Thomastown missed a late, long range free, for example - but the crowd didn’t mind and for the second week running they gave the teams a standing ovation when time was called.
First time in front
The first time the ’Bridge led was five minutes into extra-time when Aidan Cleere threw over a point from 20-metres on the left following a foul on Liam Blanchfield. The same Blanchfield was pushed in the back minutes later as the ball arrived in front of the Thomastown goal, and Cleere again took the honours.
Thomastown posted a reply through free taker Michael Donnelly shortly afterwards following a foul on their best player, Thomas O’Hanrahan, who at times during the second half looked like he would win the match on his own.
The winners landed a superb point in reply, with Hugh O’Neill and Morrissey involved in a great build-up to a fine score for Eoghan O’Connor (1-11 to 0-12).
Both sides added a point before the rest was reached with Bennettsbridge leading by 1-12 to 0-13.
The bodies may have been tired and the leg muscles were tightening up, but the players thundered through another 10 minutes of incident packed hurling.
Thomastown had the ball in the net early on when a 65 from Michael Donnelly was touched home. The referee ruled out the effort because someone had been in the square.
The first score fell to Hugh O’Neill in the 78th minute. He picked up a rash clearance from the losers defence, dashed up the left wing before shooting a great point off his left. Within seconds Liam Blanchfield shot another great score from a bad angle on the right.
The ’Town didn’t give up the chase. They battled on and on, and in the last minute they forced a penalty when Kevin Butler was fouled. While Michael Donnelly got a powerful strike on the ball, goalie Michael Shiel turned it away in what was the final act of defiance in a final that will be remembered for many a long day.
Sunday was a bright and fresh day, with a light breeze blowing towards the country end. Thomastown had first use of it. They opened smartly and scores from Robert O’Hanrahan (free) from his own ‘55’, Michael Donnelly (free) and a powerful effort from Thomas O’Hanrahan helped them settle into the game.
While the opening was good, it might have been better because the ’Town ran up four wides before the ’Bridged opened their account through Liam Blanchfield in the 13th minute. After they got off the mark the winners missed two handy enough chances from frees, which could have piled the pressure on the opposition after they had played a lot of good hurling.
The ’Town continued to enjoy the better of things, with Michael Donnelly, Thomas O’Hanrahan and Barry Whelan driving the cause, but the ’Bridge just wouldn’t give ground.
At half-time the losers led by 0-8 to 0-2, with five of their scores coming during the second quarter.
The ’Bridge charged into the new half with all guns blazing. Aidan Cleere pointed a 65 within a minute. Thirty seconds further on Liam Blanchfield broke a long, high ball for Eoghan O’Connor to the left. The latter let fly with a ground shot from 20-metres. Sub Kevin Brennan charged in from the opposite side and he got a touch to the ball with his out-stretched hurley.
The ’Bridge were back in the match big time, 0-8 to 1-3.
For a while afterwards Thomas O’Hanrahan was the main man in the game, the likely game winner. He marked his arrival with a smashing solo run in the 36th minute through the opposing defence which ended with him being fouled. Michael Donnelly tossed over the point.
Another score from Donnelly upped the difference to 0-10 to 1-3, and by now the contest was alive with terrific action in all part. The ’Bridge pulled back some ground when Aidan Cleere and Eoghan O’Connor shot points, but at the other end they had to thank corner-back, Sean Morrissey.
He executed a vital interception on the edge of the square in the 47th minute when Andrew Kehoe looked sure to score a goal.
That escape became all the more important when Aidan Cleere scored a 65 within a minute to reduce the deficit to the minimum, 0-10 to 1-6.
Thomastown pulled back another score when a foul on Thomas O’Hanrahan was turned into account by free taker Donnelly.
The ’Bridge nearly snatched a goal minutes later, but luck was against Kevin Brennan first with an effort from close range on the right, and then Liam Blanchfield from the edge of the square.
Wing-back Kevin Blanchfield landed a super point within seconds of that near thing, which cleared the way for Enda Morrissey to square up the tie and force the issue into extra-time time.
The winners had heroes aplenty, but none did better than central defenders, Cormac Wafer, a real battler and talented hurler, and Robert Lennon, Willie Murphy, Aidan Cleere, when he found the rhythm of the game during the second half, Kevin Blanchfield and Enda Morrissey.
Along with those already mentioned, others who did very well for the losers were Mark Walsh and Robert O’Hanrahan.
Scorers: Bennettsbridge – Aidan Cleere (0-6, two frees, two 65s’); Kevin Brennan (1-0); Enda Morrissey, Eoghan O’Connor, Liam Blanchfield (0-2 each); Kevin Blanchfield, Hugh O’Neill (0-1 each). Thomastown – Michael Donnelly (0-10, seven frees); Robert O’Hanrahan (0-1, free); Thomas O’Hanrahan, Adrian Burke (0-1 each).
Bennettsbridge – Michael Shiel, Sean Morrissey, Robert Lennon, Shane Nolan, Willie Murphy, Cormac Wafer, Kevin Blanchfield, Enda Morrissey, Hugh O’Neill, Eoghan O’Connor, Paul O’Neill, Aidan Cleere, Michael Power, Liam Blanchfield, Dylan Walsh. Sub – Kevin Brennan for M. Power ht.
Thomastown – Neil O’Mara, Cian O’Mara, Kieran Treacy, Gary Mason, Robert O’Hanrahan, Barry Whelan, Mark Walsh, Michael Donnelly, Gary Lehane, Eoin Manning, Robert O’Hanrahan, Luke Blanchfield, Kevin Butler, Adrian Burke, Andrew Kehoe. Subs – Eddie Corrway for K. Butler 25th min; Johnny Barron for A. Kehoe 48th min; Jamie Lanigan for E. Corrway 55th min.
Referee – Domo Connolly (Mooncoin).