Pat’s have looked better, but they still earn ticket to Croker

IT WASN’T their most composed or convincing performance ever, but strong willed St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) kept the show on the road and now the next stop will be Croke Park on Saturday, February 11 (5.30pm) when they could finish as the pin-up boys.

IT WASN’T their most composed or convincing performance ever, but strong willed St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) kept the show on the road and now the next stop will be Croke Park on Saturday, February 11 (5.30pm) when they could finish as the pin-up boys.

Cork finest, Charleville stand between the Cats and glory in the All-Ireland club junior hurling final in what should be a thunderous shoot-out between quality teams.

“Beating Ballygar was a step-up in class after a Leinster championship that didn’t really test us. Against Charleville we will have to step up again, but we won’t back down from the challenge,” promised delighted St Patrick’s manager, Maurice Aylward, after brave, brave Ballygar (Galway) were put to the sworn in a dogged semi-final in Nenagh on Sunday.

There were times during the game when, class wise, St Patrick’s looked to be in a different parish than their opponents. An example was during the first half, at the end of which they led by 0-11 to 0-3. And that was after failing to find the net with two good opportunities.

Physical power

Another occasion when they gap looked awesome was 90 seconds into the new half when the difference stretched to 0-13 to 0-3.

However, there was an honestly of effort, and physical power to the play of Ballygar that kept winding-up as the hour progressed and which carried them to within touching distance of the opposition at the finish. They closed out the match with late points from midfielder, Pat Quinn and driving centre-forward, Declan Nolan.

Into lost time Ballygar forced a 20-metre free to the left of the town end goal, but the effort was saved and instantly the final whistle was blown. Unlucky? Not really!

St Patrick’s were the better team, but they were made earn their keep this time.

Definitely, the closing chapter was a bit uneasy for St Patrick’s, who had led throughout. However, they had repeatedly shown an ability to produce a score or two when needed, which is always a good sign in a team.

The quality shone through at different times with the winners. During the opening half Geoff Brennan was commanding at centre-back; Brian Phelan, at midfield early on and then at full-forward, was hugely effective as was Bill Staunton, while Seoirse Kenny was a terrific ball winner and playmaker at centre-forward.

Best of all was wing-forward Kevin Kelly, who arrowed over five scores at a time when some slow starters around him were trying to find their way into the game.

Later, during the closing half, Joe Brennan found his best form and produced golden scorers that stalled the opposition when they threatened. And goalie Michael Gannon was on his toes and produced big when the heat was white hot nearing the finish.

Was it the kind of patch performance that might leave St Patrick’s wondering about themselves? Hardly, because Ballygar were the best team they played so far in the competition; their hurling, especially in the first half, was knitted together nicely and they showed a priceless ability to dig out a score when the need was greatest.

Must be ironed out

Sure, there are things about their play that must be ironed out before the big day out in Croker, but that is nothing new for a team in an All-Ireland final.

“Semi-finals are about winning, not necessarily the performance,” insisted St Patrick’s coach, Matt Ruth, who has experience of an All-Ireland final or two behind him.

The losers, who opened facing the stiff breeze, paid for trying to slow down play early on when goalie Shane Harkin was pulled up for delaying the puck-out. The referee punished Ballygar by awarding a throw-in on the 20-metre line.

Kenny stole possession and placed Bill Staunton for the opening point in the eight minute. That helped settle people after Pat’s had posted three wides earlier.

Within a minute the Kevin Kelly show was on the road. He lashed over a point from a 65 won through the persistence of Bill Staunton in front of goal. Eric Walsh (free) hit back for a minor for Ballygar before Kelly (free) and Bill Staunton, after a daring run up the left wing, hit the target to up the difference to 0-4 to 0-1 after 16 minutes.

St Patrick’s were flying. Their hurling was neat; their touch neater; their combination play a street ahead of the opposition.

Passing the 20 minute mark the difference was 0-7 to 0-3, but the Kilkenny champions were driving into and over the opposition.

They should have scored a goal in the 23rd minute. Brian Phelan went on a run and engineered an opening, but Michael Brennan’s well struck shot was somehow scrambled away by the goalie.

Kelly, Michael Brennan, a very good score under pressure, Brian Phelan and Kelly all hit the target before the ball ended up in the Ballygar. It was an own goal, actually, after a cross by Joe Brennan was turned into the net by a defender. The score was ruled out for an infringement of the square. That was a harsh call!

That was the last play in the half, and it left Pat’s leaders by 0-11 to 0-3 at the rest.

When the Galway side conceded points to Jody Phelan, after Brian Phelan won the throw-in, and Kevin Kelly (free) within 90 seconds of the restart we began to wonder how it might all end.

More power in legs

Ballygar simply dug in. They pulled back a brace of scores through free taker, Eric Walsh, the first after a foul on Declan Nolan, to unearth new belief. When a Pat’s defender was judged to have thrown the ball when attempting to deliver a hand-pass, Walsh put his name on another score (0-13 to 0-6).

Suddenly the Ballygar lungs were bigger and able to suck in more air, and there was more power in the legs. Their fourth consecutive score followed. They were flying!

Declan Nolan charged at the Kilkenny goal from the right. His whistling shot was blocked out by goalie Gannon, but there lurking on the edge of the square was Eric Walsh. He booted the loose ball into the net (0-13 to 1-6).

With 15 minutes remaining, there was plenty of time to save the game. St Pat’s, although under pressure, held firm. They worked a free 25-metre out on the right. Kevin Kelly converted.

Within 30 seconds Jody Phelan stole possession off the opposition, deliver to Joe Brennan, who galloped away before shooting a great point (0-15 to 1-6).

Stephen Lohan lifted Ballygar with a super point from the right wing, the score of the afternoon. Joe Brennan replied in like manner, dashing through the centre of the opposing defence before striking at full pace.

There was another exchange of points before the match reached the 58th minute. Subsequently Ballygar made scoring deposits through Pat Quinn and Declan Nolan, but time ran out on them.

St Patrick’s can dare to dream. Minus powerful defenders, Geoff Morrissey (he played the closing few minutes) and captain, Kieran Delaney they still won. They shouldn’t sell themselves short. They are a good team. It only remains to be determined how good!

St Patrick’s – Michael Gannon, John Mooney, Stephen Staunton, Paddy Cahill, Robert Healy, Geoffrey Brennan, Stephen Roberts, Brian Phelan, James Gannon, Jody Phelan, Seoirse Kenny, Kevin Kelly, Michael Brennan, Bill Staunton, Joe Brennan. Subs – Conor Delaney for J. Gannon; Geoff Morrissey for S. Roberts; Brian Mulhall for R. Healy.

Ballygar – Shane Harkin, Gary Brennan, Darragh O’Malley, Padraic Mannion, Barry Nolan, Paul Mahony, Enda Naughton, Pat Quinn, Jonathan Fitzmaurice, D.J. Nolan, Declan Nolan, Eric Walsh, Stephen Lohan, Tomas Finneran, Conal Greally. Sub – Noel Mannion for J. Fitzmaurice.

Referee – Pat Casey (Waterford).

Frees – St Patrick’s 17 (8 and 9); Ballygar 15 (8 and 7).

Wides – St Patrick’s 9 (6 and 3); Ballygar 3 (2 and 1).