Not for the first time in this Munster intermediate hurling club championship has the resolve and character of Fr O’Neill’s been tested. This provincial final victory in Fraher Field, Dungarvan was built on a fierce work-rate and will-to-win, just like they showed in their extra-time victory over Blackrock earlier this month.
On this occasion, they were clinging to a three-point lead with two minutes (plus four stoppage) left on the clock. Ballysaggart urgently required a goal and tried their best to get one, but they were driven back by battle-hardened O’Neill’s. It was only when Declan Dalton fired over a 64th minute point from a free after a foul on Rob Cullinane could they be sure of the silverware.
Ballysaggart coach Frank Flannery felt it came down to ‘shot selection’, “Fr O’Neill’s took their chances over the hour. We were putting the ball into the goalie’s hands and you cannot do this at this level. You have to take every opportunity.
“They also had that bit more composure. We lost our shape at the end. When we were chasing the game, we got sucked up the field too far.”
In an absorbing contest, the early exchanges accurately reflected what was to follow. It was score-for-score, two huge Dalton frees replying to Stephen Bennett and Kenneth Cashel scores. Christy Murphy opened up a 0-6 to 0-3 cushion for Ballysaggart only for Paudie McMahon to cut the gap to one.
Fr O’Neill’s then set up an attack, Billy Dunne ran at the Ballysaggart defence before firing a low shot past Michael Ryan, 1-5 to 0-6, after a fast and furious first quarter. The Waterford outfit forced their way back to draw level through Stephen Bennett and Murphy.
Fr O’Neill’s stretched the lead to three points with seven minutes to go to the break with Dalton belting over a free from distance and points from Cullinane and Eoin Conway that gave them the upper hand.
However, in keeping with the see-saw nature of the match, Ballysaggart weren’t found wanting and the score was back to two points when Chris O’Gorman pointed in the 30th minute – O’Neill’s doing really well not to concede a goal.
While the Waterford team trailed on the scoreboard 1-8 to 0-9, there was a psychological boost as they went to the dressing-room having saved a close-in free from Dalton.
That feeling didn’t last long. The second half was just three minutes old when Dalton smashed home a goal,after good work by Dunne and McMahon in the build-up.
Ballysaggart were hungry for victory too and admirably they answered back, outscoring O’Neill’s four points to one. All four came from the Bennett brothers, Stephen (3) and Shane. As well, Shane was bearing down on goal only to see his route blocked.
The Fr O’Neill’s scores weren’t as plentiful now, yet they were able to keep their noses in front, and entering the fourth quarter, they were three up, 2-10 to 0-13.
Ballysaggart were only trailing by two when Murphy found the target once again. Then four scores in-a-row, including one from substitutes Liam O’Driscoll and Jason Hankard, handed the initiative back to the east Cork men.
There was also a major sigh of relief for them when Shane Bennett’s overhead pull on a free flew wide of the post and into the side netting.
Five minutes remained and Ballysaggart were doing all the pressing.
Murphy sent over his fourth point and Stephen Bennett arrowed over a pair of frees, and there was hope for Ballysaggart when they reduced the deficit to a one score game, 2-14 to 0-17.
Two minutes were left on the clock, and with at least four additional minutes signalled, it made for a frantic final few minutes.
And there was no shortage of drama.
Dalton won the ball and, surrounded by defenders, he one-handed flicked the ball to the net but after consulting with his umpires, referee John McCormack disallowed the goal for an infringement.
Ballysaggart returned the ball up field. However, Fr O’Neills’ heroic defensive display ensured no joy for them. Time and time again, they were denied.
Dalton’s seventh free managed to ease the pressure and extend the lead to four. Fr O’Neill’s had weathered the storm.
Fourteen years on from their Munster junior success, joint captains Mark O’Keeffe and Dan Harrington created more history for the club when they accepted the Hoare Cup for the first time.
Scorers for Fr O’Neill’s: D Dalton (1-7, 0-7 frees), B Dunne (1-1), P McMahon (0-2), J Millerick, R Cullinane, E Conway, J Hankard and L O’Driscoll (0-1 each).
Scorers for Ballysaggart: Stephen Bennett (0-8, 0-5 frees), C Murphy (0-4), Shane Bennett (0-2 frees), Chris O’Gorman (0-2), K Cashel (0-1).
Fr O’Neill’s: C Sloane; P Butler, G Millerick, M Millerick; J Barry, D Harrington (Joint-Capt), T Millerick; J Millerick, K O’Sullivan; M O’Keeffe (Joint-Capt), R Cullinane, P McMahon; E Conway, D Dalton, B Dunne.
Subs: L O’Driscoll for E Conway (40), J Hankard for J Millerick (48), C Broderick for J Barry (59).
Ballysaggart: M Ryan; Cailean O’Gorman, K Fennessy, E O’Brien; S Mangan (Joint-Capt), Stephen Bennett, D Meagher; Kieran Bennett, C Murphy; R Walsh, Shane Bennett (Joint-Capt), Chris O’Gorman; L O’Gorman, K Cashel, Kyle Bennett.
Subs: S Ryan for L O’Gorman (half time).
Referee: John McCormack (Tipperary).