A near-perfect day for hurling at Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday for this Munster SHC semi-final, and a near-perfect game plan by Sixmilebridge.
The Clare champions came to Cork and did what no team in the Rebel county had been able to do in the concluding stages of their championship — put the shackles on the ever-dangerous Conor Lehane.
Ever-dangerous? Why yes; having averaged 2-8 in his last three championship games, though tightly-marked here by the giant Páidí Fitzpatrick, Conor managed only 1-6 against the Bridge, 1-1 from play, but that could easily have been 2-6, his shot from close range in the 50th minute skinning the outside of the post and ending up in the side netting.
Another part of the Sixmilebridge game plan saw captain Alan Quilligan delegated to take care of the other Midleton danger man, Luke O’Farrell; again it worked, Luke limited to just a point by the equally sticky Aidan. Main man responsible for that plan? Manager John O’Meara.
“Conor is a top-class inter-county player and we had to give him due respect. He got 2-10 in the Cork final, we met last night and decided there was no way we could let that happen against us. We felt if we could hold him to maybe 1-5 or something like that we’d be happy enough but I thought Páidí was outstanding on him, as was Aidan Quilligan on Luke O’Farrell inside. In fact we’re delighted with the way everyone in our backline played, and the lads at the other end were able to get enough to get us over the line.”
From early on it was obvious that this was going to be a very different kind of game to the Cork final at the same venue a couple of weeks ago. Gone was the openness, gone was the free rein to Lehane to roam the plains and score almost at will. Instead it was a mano-a-mano dogfight, trench warfare, the sides on just a point apiece after the first quarter (though Midleton already had five wides). No accident either — this was exactly what John O’Meara and Sixmilebridge had in mind as they headed for Cork.
“A lot of the media and bookies had us as huge underdogs, didn’t give us much of a chance but we felt we were in a with a right shot. After seeing the Cork county final I thought our own final against Newmarket-on-Fergus was a lot more intense; I knew if we brought that level of intensity to Cork we’d have a great chance.”
This isn’t to say that Sixmilebridge had it all their own way. Had Midleton not been so profligate in that opening half (eight wides), had Lehane’s 50th minute shot been on the other side of the post, who knows? Those are the what-ifs, however; the facts are Sixmilebridge went on to then dominate the rest of the first half, should have been much more than a point ahead at the break (1-7 to 1-6).
Their goal had come in the 18th minute, centre-forward Alan Mulready the recipient of a long, visionary pass from outstanding midfielder Jamie Shanahan, beating his man and finishing clinically. Sixmilebridge also had points in this half from centre-back Caimin Morey (another stellar performance), Mulready himself, Pa Sheehan, Shane Golden, Kevin Lynch and full-forward Niall Gilligan (two) and with just two minutes left in the half, were comfortably in control, 1-7 to 0-5. Two big scores from Lehane, however, first a goal swatted home after his 20m free was saved, then a pointed free after Brian Hartnett had been fouled, and it was back to the minimum at the break.
“Disappointing, giving up 1-1 in the final few minutes of the half,” said John. “We felt we had the better hurling done, said we’d go out in the second half and give it a right lash. Some of the subs we brought on played very well, and we managed to get some scores at crucial times. In general I think everyone upped their game a few notches in the second half.”
That they did and in this half Sixmilebridge made no mistake. Ten points to seven they outscored Midleton, many of those points scored in almost instant reply to Midleton at the other end, lack of concentration around the middle third costing the Cork champions dearly. Indiscipline was also costing the Magpies in this half, Jamie Shanahan taking over the free-taking duties from Gilligan (restricted by injury but continued to perform well in open play, made two points for Pa Sheehan) and doing so impeccably, four from four.
All in all then a fair result, the better team progressing to a Munster final meeting with 2011 champions Na Piarsaigh next Sunday, meaning another busy week of planning for O’Meara and his merry men. “We’re absolutely thrilled to be there especially considering where we came from, losing the first round of the Clare championship back in early May. Na Piarsaigh are our neighbours, only in the road. We played them in friendlies earlier on in the year, we won one each but that won’t count for anything. They’re probably on a different mission to us, Munster champions a couple of years ago but beaten by eventual All-Ireland champions Loughgiel Shamrocks in the semi-final after extra-time. They probably feel there’s an All-Ireland club title in them but we’re going to give it a hell of a lash — a great, great way to end a super year for Clare hurling.”
Scorers for Sixmilebridge: J Shanahan 0-5 (three frees, one 65); A Mulready 1-1; P Sheehan 0-3; N Gilligan 0-3 (two frees); S Morey, S Golden, C Morey, K Lynch, C Deasy, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Midleton: C Lehane 1-5 (three frees, one 65); P Haughney 0-2; A Ryan 0-2; P Dowling, L O’Farrell, C Walsh, T Wallace (free), 0-1 each.
Sixmilebridge subs: S O’Sullivan for Lynch (inj. 34); C Deasy for R Shanahan (54); D Morey for Sheehan (58); B Corry for Mulready (60+2).
Midleton subs: D Ryan for O’Shea (inj. 20); P O’Keeffe for Walsh (60).
Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary).
The key moment
50th minute, Sixmilebridge leading 1-14 to 1-11, Conor Lehane’s shot hits the net but it’s the side netting. If Midleton had got parity at that stage, who knows?
The year Clare are having and the superiority they now enjoy over Cork at both county and club level.
Haven’t seen that before
Sixmilebridge beating Midleton in the Munster championship, avenging the loss of 1983.
The main man
Several contenders from the Bridge, including evergreen Niall Gilligan and Caimin Morey but we’ll go for midfielder Jamie Shanahan.
The man in black
Johnny Ryan (Tipperary) didn’t win a lot of friends in Midleton in the second half but overall, did well.
Sixmilebridge meet Na Piarsaigh (Limerick) next Sunday in the Munster final, venue to be decided; Midleton can get back to celebrating and planning.
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