Despite all this, both Sixmilebridge and Newmarket-on-Fergus combined to present the massed hordes huddled in the shelter of the covered stands with a game of real quality.
Great credit then to all 36 players (18 on each side) who made an appearance on what was a rapidly deteriorating pitch; great credit also to referee Rory Hickey and his officiating team who did a tremendous job of allowing as much flow in the play as was possible.
Really, it’s almost impossible on paper to describe just how difficult were the conditions, players slipping and sliding, ball getting stuck in the muck, wet sticks twisting in the hand. And yet both Newmarket — the holders — and Sixmilebridge did their best to play hurling in the new style that so excited hurling fans on the inter-county scene this year, using quick hands and quick feet in their efforts to move the ball sharply and accurately to team-mates in better position.
“Conditions were terrible,” agreed Sixmilebridge manager John O’Meara. “But we got a great start, Niall Gilligan’s goal from the penalty.”
That was in just the second minute, pacy corner-forward Alan Mulready fouled after grabbing a dangerous Seadhna Morey centre, veteran Niall Gilligan beating the three defenders with a well-struck bouncer. “We should have driven on from that but instead we started giving away frees,” added O’Meara. “Colin Ryan got five points from placed balls in the first half.”
That was indeed a problem for Sixmilebridge in that opening half. With points from star Clare sharp-shooter Ryan and corner-forward Shane Liddy, Newmarket announced their entry to the game but with points of their own from centre-forward Shane Golden (impressive hour), inter-county panellist Morey and Gilligan, Sixmilebridge did temporarily drive on, led 1-3 to 0-2 after 13 minutes of what was really high-quality hurling, near miraculous given the deteriorating conditions, the ground cutting up.
Then the fouling started and how Colin Ryan and Newmarket took advantage. From there to the break, they outscored The Bridge seven points to one, Ryan with four of those, full-forwards Ronan Goode, Stephen Kelly and midfielder Martin O’Hanlon with the others. That meant that Sixmilebridge, though having looked the more impressive side, actually trailed at the break by two points, 0-9 to 1-4.
“We had a chat at half-time, said if we could cut out the fouling, control the aggression in the tackle, we would win,” said manager O’Meara.
“We went on to hold Newmarket scoreless for over 20 minutes of the second half.”
It was actually 26 minutes, during which time Sixmilebridge turned that two-point deficit to a one-goal lead (1-9 to 0-9), omnipresent midfielder Jamie Shanahan kicking it off after just two minutes, 37-year-old Gilligan defying the years and his marker with four more points, one of those a difficult free from wide right, another from play while under the most severe pressure.
Meanwhile, and as noted by O’Meara, the Sixmilebridge defence was doing a superb job at the other end. Keeper Derek Fahy was really impressive, brave and commanding; the full-back line of Noel Purcell, Páidí Fitzgerald and supersub Brian Carey were in control at the back; the half-back trio of Caimin Morey, Aidan Quilligan and John Fennessy were even more impressive again.
Eventually, however, Newmarket did make that second-half breakthrough, a well-taken point by sub Mikey McNamara in the 57th minute, and when Colin Ryan added an even better point just a minute later, it was game on, just a point in it (1-9 to 0-11) with still two minutes to go, plus two of added time.
In the 59th minute, however, it was that man Gilligan again, showing a fine turn of pace as he raced in along the end-line, then showing all his experience when opting for the sure point rather than risking the shot at goal.
It still made for a very nervous final few minutes for John O’Meara. “I hate a two-point game and all I was thinking was ‘Please don’t let Newmarket go down the field and get a goal’ Thankfully the backs held firm, we’re taking the cup home and that’s all that counts. These lads are a great bunch of workers, they pride themselves on their work-rate and we saw that in the second half today, several exceptional performances. Jamie Shanahan had a man-of-the-match game, our captain Aidan Quilligan did the same, so did so many others.”
Scorers for Sixmilebridge: NGilligan 1-6 (0-3 frees, 1-0 penalty); J Shanahan 0-2; S Golden, S Morey 0-1 each.
Scorers for Newmarket-on-Fergus: C Ryan 0-6 (five frees); S Liddy, S Kelly, R Goode M O’Hanlon, M McInerney, 0-1 each.
SIXMILEBRIDGE: D Fahy; N Purcell, P Fitzpatrick, T Keogh; C Morey, A Quilligan (c), J Fennessy; K Lynch, J Shanahan; R Shanahan, S Golden, S Morey; D Morey, N Gilligan, A Mulready.
Subs: B Carey for Keogh (inj. 20); P Shanahan for D Morey (37); S O’Sullivan for Fennessy (60).
NEWMARKET-ON-FERGUS: D Duggan; E O’Brien, J McInerney, S O’Connor; N O’Connor, E Barrett (c), A Barrett; E Hayes, M O’Hanlon; D Barrett, C Ryan, S O’Brien Snr; R Goode, S Kelly, S Liddy.
Subs: M McInerney for Hayes (40); J Liddy for S Liddy (46); S Kelleher for Goode (51).
Referee: R Hickey (Éire Óg).
Niall Gilligan’s 2nd minute penalty goal was huge but Jamie Shanahan’s 32nd minute point set the Bridge on their way.
The quality of play in such atrocious conditions; a fitting final for the All-Ireland champion county.
Sixmilebridge beating their oldest, fiercest rivals in a Clare senior final.
Jamie Shanahan got the gong and was impressive but we’re picking Caimin Morey, outstanding in the Bridge defence.
Rory Hickey (Éire Óg) did brilliantly but was helped by the attitude of two sporting sides.
Sixmilebridge meet Cork champions Midleton in the Munster semi-final on Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.