A WEEK after losing the league final, James Stephens picked themselves up smartly and turned in a very gritty performance to beat determined Graigue-Ballycallan in this sometimes bruising senior hurling championship quarter-final in Callan on Sunday.
Some of the first half exchanges were top draw championship stuff, with heavy shoulder challenges going in thick and fast, with no one prepared to take a step backwards. However, ’Stephens got on top during the third quarter and by the finish they had made an easy path for themselves through to the semi-finals against St Martin’s (Muckalee).
Graigue left the championship without regrets, knowing they had given all that was in them. They blasted away as best they could when wind assisted during the opening half, but when they retired 1-6 to 1-8 down at the break the writing was on the wall for them.
Early in the new half they lost wing-back, Ciaran Hoyne, one of their most fierce competitors with a shoulder injury, and after that the life was slowly but surely squeezed out of them.
’Stephens most certainly met fire with fire when the contest was at it hottest. County star, Eoin Larkin, shipped some heavy tackles but he never stepped back from his role as attack leader. He inspired all around him and at every available opportunity brought colleagues into play by digging out hard won possession and drawing cover to make space for others.
In the end Larkin made up a fair part of the difference between the teams, although it has to be said he got tremendous support up front from the hard driving Matt Ruth and the fine striking Niall Tyrrell, who helped himself to three nice points.
It wasn’t the easiest of evenings for hurling. Apart from the hampering breeze, a cold, heavy shower of rain early in the second half made bad conditions even worse and made everything very testing for all competitors.
It was hell for leather from the throw-in, and there was nothing between the sides during the furious opening exchanges. In the opening minutes Dermot Heafey and Matt Ruth swopped points. Then John Hoyne and Matt Ruth did likewise.
The third exchange was between Eoin Larkin (free) and Eddie Brennan as both teams blasted at it with maximum power. ’Stephens won back the lead through Eoin Larkin in the 10th minute, and they were to lead all the way home from there, although it wasn’t as easy passage until the closing quarter.
Looked in trouble
Graigue cut the divide to the minimum in the 17th minute when John Purcell drilled over a point from a free (0-6 to 0-5). There was another exchange of points before Eoin Larkin plucked a goal from a schemozzle in front of the town end goal in the 22nd minute.
That score upped the divide to 1-7 to 0-6 and for a few brief moments Graigue looked like they could become detatched. Niall McQuillan was put in the clear by Larkin shortly afterward, and from 20-metres he tested goalie P.J. Trant with a fiercely driven shot. The goalie held his ground.
Almost immediately the industrious Jack McGrath created an opening for David McCormack, who shot a point to suddenly up the divide to five points.
Graigue needed a break, and they got it in the 28th minute when Eddie Brennan was fouled in front of goal after winning a delivery from way out the field by Adrian Bourke. They were awarded a penalty and Micheal Hoyne lashed the ball into the net.
That turned out to be the last score of the half. It left Graigue two points behind (1-6 to 1-8). There was still hope for them, but to be honest, it was faint.
The winners opening the scoring in the first minute of the new half with a point from Niall Tyrrell, the assist being provided by Gary Whelan. John Purcell replied with a point from a free at the other end, but then ’Stephens put two quick scores together per Matt Ruth, after collect a short delivery from a free by Larkin, and and Niall Tyrrell to swell the difference to 1-11 to 1-8.
Graigue were hanging on, but they just couldn’t get a supply going to their attack. Slowly they conceded, point by point to David Mccormack and David Walton (2).
Passing the third quarter mark ’Stephens lead was a healthy 1-13 to 1-8, and growing. They were never troubled after that and they ran up a healthy score.
It might have been a big win for ’Stephens, but officials reckoned afterwards that there was a lot more in the team. If that be true, it was a nice way to move forward.
James Stephens - Derek Brennan, Philip Larkin, Jackie Tyrrell, John Comerford, Eamon Sheehy, Tomas Keogh, Donnacha Cody, Niall McQuillan, David McCormack, Niall Tyrrell, Gary Whelan, Eoin Larkin, Jack McGrath, Matthew Ruth, Diarmuid Cody. Subs - David Walton, Eoin McCormack, Conor McQuillan.
Graigue-Ballycallan - P.J. Trant, Adrian Bourke, Michael Hoyne, Darragh Egan, Shane Murphy, James Ryall, Ciaran Hoyne, Darragh Walton, Jimmy Murphy, Niall Millea, Eddie Brennan, Jimmy Smith, Dermot Heafey, John Hoyne, John Purcell. Subs - Bob Murphy, James Young, Kevin Cleere.
Referee - Tom Duggan (Mullinavat).