The Bennettsbridge team that claimed their first senior league title after beating Clara on Sunday afternoon in UPMC Nowlan Park. Picture: Willie Dempsey
Bennettsbridge and Clara met in a much anticipated St Canice's Credit Union senior league final on Sunday afternoon and while the game never really lived up to expectation it was still a historic day for Bennettsbridge as they landed their first ever title at senior level.
The Bridge have made huge strides in the last few seasons and after winning All-Ireland Junior and Intermediate titles in the not so distant past they are now major contenders for championship honours in Kilkenny.
The Tim Dooley managed side have had a wonderful league campaign where they have won all of their games as they dismissed Lisdowney, Rower-Inistioge and Shamrocks in the group stages before accounting for Clara in the final.
While a league title will be much cherished in the club, Bennettsbridge know they have a massive challenge upcoming this weekend when they meet Shamrocks for the second time in a number of weeks so all eyes will be on that crunch championship clash.
For Clara it was their first competitive defeat of the year and while that would have hurt them, of more immediate concern is the fitness of talisman Lester Ryan after he went off with a hamstring injury after only six minutes of playing time.
Clara face off with Tullaroan early on Sunday afternoon so they will be sweating on the availability of the former Kilkenny captain.
On the game itself Clara looked to be in control when only trailing by a point at the break with a big wind behind them in the second period and Chris Bolger and Liam Ryan standing out but whatever was said at half-time by the Bennettsbridge mentors certainly worked as they were the better team throughout the second half with Willie Murphy starring as he scored five points from play while team captain Liam Blanchfield was also hugely influential.
The victory for the ’Bridge is all the more impressive when you take into account that they lined out without a number of key players including Robert Lennon, Sean Morrissey and Ciaran Brennan but to win such a big game without that calibre of player says a lot about the side.
With the wind at their backs Clara opened the scoring when Matthew Kenny converted a long distance free within seconds of the start before Bennettsbridge moved into the lead after points from Nicky Cleere and Liam Blanchfield.
Clara then hit back with efforts from Chris Bolger and Paul Cody before Bolger had a glorious chance for goal when he broke clear of the Bennettsbridge rearguard but David Blanchfield managed to get back and he provided a crucial hook on the dangerous inside forward.
After Nicky Cleere registered his second point of the half Bennettsbridge had a goal chance of their own and it looked a certainty to end up in the net after a pin point pass from Kevin Blanchfield found his namesake Liam but incredibly Clara stopper Kevin Nolan found a way to keep a fearsome shot out.
The sides then traded scores before a Bolger point gave Clara a 0-6 to 0-5 advantage at the first water break.
Over the course of the second quarter Clara were dealing with their opposition pretty well but indiscipline was proving to be a huge problem with Nicky Cleere converting five frees in the second quarter alone.
Those five frees eventually led to a well drilled and composed Bennettsbridge outfit leading at the break but with Bolger, Ryan and Conor O’Shea on target for Clara it was only the minimum between the sides (0-10 to 0-9).
Clara would have fancied their chances of overturning the deficit with the elements at their back coming down the straight but their shooting proved to be incredibly erratic with their opponents proving to be much more economical in front of the posts.
Bennettsbridge kicked off the second half with points from Nicky Cleere and Willie Murphy with Murphy going on to have a superb half of hurling as he scored five points from play.
That left Bennettsbridge three points to the good before David Langton got Clara up in running in the second half with a well taken point in the 37th minute.
Murphy and Ryan then took centre stage as they shared the next five points with the Clara man Ryan outscoring his opponent 0-3 to 0-2 in that freescoring period as again only a point separated the sides by the second half water break (0-14 to 0-13).
You got the sense with such a tightly fought game that it may take extra-time to decide a winner but Bennettsbridge weren’t having any of that as they were superb in the final quarter with points from Murphy and Liam Blanchfield increasing their lead to three and while Clara responded via Matthew Kenny and Jack Langton, their missed chances were really beginning to tell in a clash where they had 18 wides in total.
Fittingly Murphy knocked over another point from play in stoppage time for Bennettsbridge and with Jason Cleere also scoring at the end of a flowing team move, the league title was in the bag for Bennettsbridge as they won out on a 0-19 to 0-16 scoreline.
Bennettsbridge -Nicky Cleere (0-8, 0-8 frees); Willie Murphy (0-5); Liam Blanchfield (0-4); Jason Cleere, Jamie Harkin (0-1 each)
Clara - Liam Ryan (0-4); Conor O’Shea (0-3, 0-2 frees); Chris Bolger (0-3); Matthew Kenny (0-2, 0-1 free); Jack Langton, Martin O’Connell, David Langton, Paul Cody (0-1 each)
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