Brilliant Birr take Athenry to cleaners

Birr 0-15 Athenry 0-6

That lesson was drilled into the hapless Galway champions yesterday by a supremely drilled Birr side.

Hurling, the ancient game, is still best played in the old way. Keep it simple, first time whipping on the deck, early ball out of defence and into attack.

Athenry got the first point, a fine strike from range across the very strong diagonal wind from corner-forward Donal Moran.

For the rest of opening quarter, it was all Birr, racking up five points without reply. The opener was from a 65 by centre-back Brian Whelahan, doubtful to start up to minutes before the throw in, playing with the benefit of a pain killing injection.

The next two came from full-forward Simon Whelahan, the first from a free, the second from play, courtesy of perfect low ball sent in by Johnny Pilkington, while the final two Birr points in that run came from corner-forward Declan Pilkington, who went on to have a magnificent hour.

Even at this early stage, it was evident that Athenry were in all kinds of trouble. All over the field, Birr were on top.

Joe Errity was well on top, beating Eugene Cloonan repeatedly; his two corner men, Gary Cahill and JP O'Meara, were supreme, while the half row of Franks/Whelahan/Claffey were also well on top, most notably Niall Claffey, handed the huge challenge of snuffing out the threat of Athenry's giant target man Joe Rabbitte.

Claffey did that superbly, vying with Errity for man-of-the-match honours. Midfield was also taken in charge by Birr, veteran Johnny Pilkington showing all the guile and craft, the crisp and intelligent stroke that made him one of the finest in the business for nearly a decade, complemented perfectly by the non stop industry and straight forward hurling of young Barry Whelahan.

Up front, the Hanniffy brothers Gary and Rory, along with Stephen Browne, were unfortunate to come up against the only really consistent line of resistance offered by Athenry (though captain Brendan Keogh did his bit in midfield), where Paul Hardiman and Brian Higgins in particular stood out.

Inside, young Paul Molloy, Simon Whelahan and that other great veteran, Declan Pilkington, had the Athenry inside line in all kinds of trouble.

Athenry were getting no room, a fine team being made to look poor by a tactically brilliant and fired up Birr side. They were winning frees, but they were all from distance, and in the difficult wind, the normally deadly Cloonan was repeatedly off target.

He did have Athenry's second (and last) score of the first half, an 18th minute point, but Birr quickly cancelled that out and more, with points from Gary Hanniffy and Paul Molloy leaving the half time score 0-7 to 0-2.

Mind you, an outstanding save by keeper Brian Mullins from Eugene Cloonan just before the break was significant, maintaining that gap.

As they had done in the first half, Athenry were again first to score on the restart, a Cloonan free, but that was to be about the extent of their threat from there to the disappointing finish.

Three more Cloonan pointed frees, before he had himself sent off with a straight red card (a bit of guff to the ref just as we was about to receive a yellow for a hard challenge), was the sum total of the Athenry second half scoring.

That was in the 55th minute, and in the 63rd minute, David Donoghue also saw red, an uncharacteristic wild pull. Meanwhile, indiscipline at the other end, the concession of silly frees, saw Whelahan add five more points to his tally, with big brother Brian adding another from a 65, Gary Hanniffy shooting two points of sheer class.

Scorers for Birr: S. Whelahan 0-7 (0-6 frees); G. Hanniffy 0-3; D. Pilkington 0-2; B. Whelahan 0-2 (65's); P. Molloy 0-1.

Athenry: E. Cloonan 0-5 (0-3 frees); D. Moran 0-1.

BIRR: B. Mullins; G. Cahill, J. Errity, JP O'Meara; D. Franks, Brian Whelahan, N. Claffey; J. Pilkington, Barry Whelahan; S. Browne, G. Hanniffy, R. Hanniffy; D. Pilkington, S. Whelahan, P. Molloy.

Subs: L. Power (Browne inj. 51).

ATHENRY: M. Crimmons; B. Feeney, G. Keane, J. Feeney; B. Higgins, D. Cloonan, P. Hardiman; B. Keogh (capt), M.J. Quinn; J. Rabbitte, P. Higgins, S. Donoghue; D. Moran, E. Cloonan, D. Donoghue.

Subs: B. Hanley (Quinn 30); D. Carroll (Hardiman inj. 53).

Referee: S. Roche (Tipperary) strict, but a good job.

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