Croker blast from the big guns

WHEN IS a five-point margin not a five-point margin?

If you wanted the difference between hurling and football crystallised then all the evidence needed was before you in Croke Park yesterday.

Ballyhale beat Portumna in the All-Ireland club hurling final by 1-19 to 0-17, while Kilmurry-Ibrickane showed their inexperience in the football equivalent as they were stifled by St Gall’s, 0-13 to 1-5.

The winning margin was the same in both cases, but there the similarities end.

Portumna surged to within four points of Ballyhale at one stage of the second half, with Leo Smith wide with a goal chance that would have thrown the game wide open.

Five points was a decent but not impregnable lead for Ballyhale, not with Joe Canning within 40 yards of their goal. The Portumna star (magician? wizard? elemental force?) threatened in the first half, but never got a clear sight of goal after the break.

By contrast, five points for St Gall’s was as good as a brick wall across their goalmouth. Kilmurry tried hard but the Antrim side kept bodies in defence, and their opponents suffered death by a thousand cuts – or rather, by a butcher’s dozen, with 13 points a comfortable winning total.

The one-way traffic wasn’t confined to Mountjoy Square and environs yesterday in Dublin. Portumna found the tide flowing heavily against them from early on in their game, Ballyhale having deciphered the Galway side’s puck-out strategies as though they had the code-breakers of Bletchley Park in the dug-out.

Ballyhale scored 11 times in the first half and ran up seven wides as they overran Portumna in the middle third: Declan Kidney would have admired the angles of running from TJ Reid and Cha Fitzpatrick as they vectored in and around Henry Shefflin.

In response Portumna could only offer Joe Canning.

He threatened Armageddon at full-forward, but his team needed someone to win a puck-out, so he moved to wing-forward.

He produced some did-he-really-do-that moments – the name’s Canning, not Can’ting – but the one power he hasn’t mastered is bi-location.

Cuchulainn was the last hurler we had who could collect his own delivery, and we understand he wouldn’t put up with the new helmet rule. Canning junior could win the ball and deliver it goalwards, but his was also the big left hand Portumna needed near the square.

Portumna boss Johnny Kelly admitted as much afterwards: “We started to get Joe out to hold possession a bit better around the middle of the field. Having said that we were robbing Peter to pay Paul. I suppose then in the second-half we came back again and then the goal took the wind out of our sails a bit.”

No arguments there. Portumna ‘keeper Ivan Canning fluffed a handpass from his brother Ollie midway through the second half and David Hoyne – in where it hurts, as Johnny Giles would say – finished from close range and stretched their lead to seven.

Ballyhale closed out the game at their ease, or as much ease as you can manage when Thor is playing for the opposition. Afterwards their manager, Michael Fennelly, admitted that last year’s defeat by the same opposition in the semis had been a motivation.

“The boys were hurt over it, very hurt,” he said. “They didn’t expect that on the way up. Afterwards of course you read everything and things went wrong. They weren’t tuned in to the 50-50 ball, passes were going astray. But they worked on that and we showed them the DVD last Sunday and fair play to them, that stuck in their minds.”

Two of the greatest hurlers of all time were on show in the opening game yesterday, Joe Canning and Henry Shefflin, yet the crowd of 34,357 only really assembled for the football decider.

On an aesthetic level alone Croke Park should look at rearranging their running order. We’re well aware that yesterday was the most competitive club final in years, and that we’ve had some stinking mismatches, but after watching two of the best club hurling combinations of the last 30 years swap 37 scores, a game of football just looks... slow.

Kilmurry-Ibrickane, to be fair, came out of the blocks with intent yesterday. Stephen Moloney’s cool finish gave them an early goal, but it was a false dawn as far as scoring was concerned.

In fairness to the Clare champions, they’ve never suggested their attack could be mistaken for the Real Madrid forward line of Puskas and Di Stefano, but after Moloney’s goal they managed just one more score, a free, in the following 40 minutes of play.

St Gall’s, by contrast, were neat and efficient, and recovered well from that early goal to build attacks through Aodhan Gallagher, with Kevin Niblock a capable fulcrum for their forward unit.

Not surprisingly, Gall’s boss Lenny Harbinson was delighted at the final whistle.

“The early goal did set us back a bit, but in fairness this team has a lot of experience and we didn’t panic.

!There’s many great footballers in the team so we kept our game plan and moved the ball quickly. We did things simply and took the simple scores. We came here today with a tremendous work ethic.

“We knew then our football ability at some stage would come through as long as we had due respect for Kilmurry.

“We needed to bring a high intensity to the game and a good work ethic, and that’s what we did.”

Neither side were aided by referee Derek Fahy, who handled the game with a pedantic attention to detail, but in truth he didn’t have any influence on the outcome.

It must have galled – sorry – Kilmurry-Ibrickane not to perform on the big day, and the Clare club’s loyal support must have had gritted teeth as they listened to the ‘olé’ cheers which followed St Gall’s final round of hand passing as the clock wound down.

Still, it was good to see the players from Quilty walk over to where their supporters congregated in the Cusack Stand after the game.

Even with an unhappy ending, it was a long, long way from Clare to there.

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