A place in the senior hurling league final and a solid workout - it was a win/win evening as far as James Stephens were concerned.
The Village showed their muscle as they fought their way into the league decider, outgunning Graigue-Ballycallan in their Saturday shoot-out.
There was something of an old-fashioned game about this clash as both sides threw everything into the mix to entertain the crowd at a chilly Palmerstown.
There were battles all over the field, not least between Eoin Larkin and Eddie Brennan, who helped themselves to 10 points apiece. However, they were almost overshadowed by another warrior in the shape of Richie Hayes.
The ’Stephens number 11 played a vital role in an enthralling first half, tussling with a teak-tough Ballycallan half-back line. His biggest act provided the turning point just minutes before the break.
Latching on to a long clearance, Hayes bustled through the sky blue defence before laying the ball off to Luke Scanlon. The forward’s shot was half-blocked by Graigue goalkeeper P.J. Trant but Hayes followed in to get a vital touch in a goalmouth scramble.
From one point down the Village were now two clear (1-8 to 0-9) - and they never looked back.
Needing a win to cement top spot in Group A James Stephens went for it from the off. They had a chance to stamp their authority on the game as early as the second minute, when Larkin attempted to burst a hole in the Graigue net from a 25 metre free, but Trant did well to tip the sliotar over the bar.
That point was the first of many in what turned into a duel between Larkin and Eddie Brennan. The respective captains led the way with early points while young forward Luke Scanlon chipped in with a brace to push ’Stephens four clear by the ninth minute (0-6 to 0-2).
The city side looked too hot to handle, but Graigue’s resilience was about to show. Helped by some lengthy Trant puckouts - one bounced wide at the road end goal - hard work from Ciaran Hoyne, and points from Tom Ryan and John Cleere they scrapped their way into the lead.
They were helped on their way by Trant’s booming 17th minute puckout which broke kindly for Eddie Brennan to slip over the bar. He added two more points from a free and a 65, the busy Bob Murphy then splitting the posts with a free from his own 65m line.
John Purcell also got in on the act, profiting after some good work from Ciaran Hoyne as five unanswered points in eight minutes pushed Graigue into the lead (0-9 to 0-7).
At that stage Ballycallan looked set to charge on - they had taken control of the middle third, nullifying the effect of Jackie Tyrrell at half-back - but two wides checked their stride before Hayes plundered that game-turning goal.
Eddie Brennan did pull a point back with another free but with Larkin (2) and Matthew Ruth fighting back the Village’s late rally saw them go in four clear at the break (1-11 to 0-10).
The game rattled on at pace in the second half, but ’Stephens always seemed to have an extra gear they could move into if needed. Both goalkeepers made fine saves, Trant denying Matthew Ruth while Derrick Brennan frustrated Darragh Walton, but a burst of Larkin scores made sure the Village remained out of reach.
With one eye on the championship Ballycallan didn’t let up, using the latter stages to introduce some younger players to the fray. They finished brightly, with county minor Vinny Teehan getting on the scoresheet, but by that stage the Village were already assured of their shot at the league title.
SCORERS: James Stephens - Eoin Larkin (0-10, 0-8 frees, 0-2 65); Richie Hayes (1-2); Luke Scanlon (0-3); David Walton, Matthew Ruth (0-2 each). Graigue-Ballycallan - Eddie Brennan (0-10, 0-5 frees, 0-1 65); John Purcell (0-2); Bob Murphy (0-1, free); Thomas Ryan, John Cleere, Vinny Teehan (0-1 each).
James Stephens - D. Brennan, N. McQuillan, T. Keogh, L. Hickey, J. Comerford, J. Tyrrell, D. Cody, E. Sheehy, C. McQuillan, D. Walton, E. Larkin, R. Hayes, L. Scanlon, M. Ruth, A. Lawlor. Subs: N. Tyrrell for C. McQuillan, 53 mins; N. Mullins for Scanlon, 60 mins.
Graigue-Ballycallan - P.J. Trant, D. Egan, S. Murphy, G. Teehan, J. Murphy, J. Ryall, C. Hoyne, B. Murphy, J. Cleere, T. Ryan, E. Brennan, D. Heafey, W. O’Connor, D. Walton, J. Purcell. Subs: J. Dermody for Heafey, 54 mins; P. Cahill for Cleere, 57 mins; S. Butler for Murphy, 59 mins.
Referee - D. O’Sullivan (John Lockes).