Forced to line out without four Kilkenny seniors, one U-21 player and one Tipperary senior, the university students turned in a marvellous display of grit and determination which the champions couldn’t match. With their semi-final unlikely to be played until at least the first Sunday in October, a full strength UCC must now be favourites to win their first title in 35 years.
They had many heroes on Saturday, but goalkeeper Richie O’Neill stood head and shoulders above all. The Kilkenny man made three blinding saves at crucial stages to deny a strangely lethargic Na Piarsaigh side that never really functioned at full throttle.
According to UCC coach Dr Paddy Crowley, the loss of those key players was the real motivating factor for his side. “We were given no chance going into the game but we have a very committed squad of players and they rose above adversity,” he said.
“We were very much under-strength but I knew we would give a good account of ourselves, because the lads we had available have tremendous heart and plenty of hurling ability. Both of those ingredients count for a lot in this game.
“I’m loath to single out any player in particular but Richie O’Neill’s display in goal, Noel Moloney’s magnificent free taking and the heroics of Darragh McSweeney, Brian Clifford and Timmy Lordan in defence are the reasons we’re in the semi-final.”
Na Piarsaigh were but a pale shadow of the side that won the title so gloriously last year. They could never stamp their authority despite storming into a 0-2 to 0-0 lead inside the opening minute. In a game which the champions were raging favourites, Piarsaigh waited for things to happen instead of making them and when the students took a five-point lead with nine minutes to go, the city club side didn’t have the necessary passion to fight back.
On a night best forgotten, only Robert Healy, John Gardiner, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín and Ronan McGregor can look back on this game with any degree of satisfaction.
After Piarsaigh’s early burst UCC settled to be level by the fifth minute and the sides were on par twice more in a disappointing first half, which ended with UCC enjoying a slender 0-7 to 0-6 lead. Noel Moloney accounted for four of the students points, one a superb effort from a sideline cut.
UCC must have been surprised at the feeble Piarsaigh challenge, particularly in attack, but there was a big improvement after Teu Ó hAilpín was moved to full-forward where he was more effective. After the students had stretched their lead with another Moloney point, the big Piarsaigh full forward was denied a goal by the first of O’Neill’s magnificent saves.
Many in the 3,621 attendance expected Na Piarsaigh to maintain their improvement but, unfortunately, it never came and it was the students who grew in stature as the second-half wore on, helped by a second brilliant save by O’Neill who denied Ronan McGregor a goal that might have turned the game.
Looking to add a bit more punch in attack, Piarsaigh moved John Gardiner to centre-forward and put McGregor back in defence where he looked far more comfortable. But it mattered little and they were rocked by a UCC goal in the 51st minute. Goalkeeper Mark O’Sullivan could only parry Noel Moloney’s effort to the inrushing Richie Flannery who billowed the Piarsaigh net.
Credit to Na Piarsaigh, their reaction was immediate and after Richie O’Neill again denied them a goal with another great save, this time from Stephen G. O’Sullivan, Teu Ó hAilpín finally found the net to give his side some hope. With time ticking away and just two points between the sides, Piarsaigh piled on the pressure and were awarded a 20-metre free straight in front of the goal, which if converted would have left the minimum between the sides with six minutes of normal time remaining.
Inexplicably, Stephen G. O’Sullivan’s failed to rise the sliothar sufficiently to clear the defence and his shot was blocked, and with it went his side’s last chance of staying in the title race.
: UCC: N. Moloney 0-7 (0-5 frees, 0-1 65); R. Flannery 1-0; P. O’Brien 0-2; R. O’Doherty, T. Kenny, E. Hanley 0-1 each. Na Piarsaigh: J. Gardiner 0-4 (0-1 free); T. Ó hAilpín 1-1; S.G. O’Sullivan 0-3 (0-1 free); R. McGregor, C. O’Sullivan 0-1 each.
: R. O’Neill; C. Hickey, D. McSweeney, B. Clifford; S. O’Neill, T. Lordan, S. Cronin; B. Carey, K. Hartnett; T. Kenny, R. Flannery, E. Hanley; N. Moloney, R. O’Doherty, P. O’Brien.
: B. Beckett for Carey; M. Phelan for O’Doherty.
: M. O’Sullivan; D. Mannix, R. O’Byrne, R. Healy; H. Gardiner, D. Gardiner, S. Óg Ó hAilpín; R. McGregor, M. Prendergast; D. Walsh, S. Guiheen, S.P. O’Sullivan; T. Ó hAilpín, S.G O’Sullivan, G. Shaw.
: C. O’Sullivan for Shaw; C. O’Mahony for Walsh.
: J. Sexton (Ballyhea).