Polished Portumna leave Na Piarsaigh reeling

Portumna (Galway) 1-15 Na Piarsaigh (Limerick) 1-11
“We’re shattered,” was the reaction of Na Piarsaigh manager Sean Stack at the end of Saturday’s All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final at sodden Semple Stadium — his side’s second semi-final defeat in three years.

“It will take a while to get over that one. But I said before the match, in conditions like this you’re not blaming anyone. They were better than us.”

And that was it in a nutshell. Fielding a young side, their age profile reduced considerably when starlet Ronan Lynch (barely 17) started in place of Damien Quigley (nearing 43), the Limerick champions went to Thurles with justifiable faith and confidence in their own ability. They left though a much-chastened outfit, schooled in the both the art and science of championship hurling.

The science was demonstrated in the intelligent and structured manner in which Portumna played the ball from defence and midfield, a point within 15 seconds of the start in each half highlighting that aspect of their play. Their lone goal, scored by recent Galway minor Ronan O’Meara in the 4th minute, was another example, full-forward Andrew Smith drawing defenders with a powerful run before a perfectly-timed perfectly placed pass.

That was a crucial score, and left Na Piarsaigh playing catch-up (1-1 to no score behind) from the start, helped Portumna to a 1-6 to 0-9 tie at the break, though playing into a fierce wind.

“Portumna are a serious outfit, very composed,” said Stack, “but with the start they got — the toss was everything. You could see against the breeze, we have a good defence, a defence as organised and composed as they have. We were just praying that we’d get the wind in for the first half. When we didn’t, with the start they got, we were chasing the game. They’re so composed and they’ve been around so long. We can’t take it from Portumna – they were super.”

Indeed they are super, this Portumna side, now chasing their fourth All-Ireland title in nine years but on this evening — for the most part — they were mostly businesslike.

At times though, and even in those conditions, they were sublime. Young O’Meara made his mark with 1-2 from play in that first half, in the second it was the turn of experience, the Hayes brothers, Damien and Niall, their cousin Kevin, the Smith brothers, Leo and Andy, to show their wares, and all either scored or set up a score.

Most impressive of all though for Portumna in a dominant second half (a five-point unanswered burst from the 44th to the 52nd minute doing most of the damage), and as on so many big occasions before for both club and county, the brilliant Canning brothers, Joe and Ollie.

Joe (25) is now recognised as being one of the outstanding hurlers of his generation, and from frees into (three) and with (four) the wind, from sideline ball and from play (one each), along with several scoring passes, he again shone.

Mind you, the same Joe was fortunate to be still on the field for that second half, a moment of madness in the 22nd minute — right in front of referee James McGrath — when he lashed out across Na Piarsaigh wing-forward David Dempsey with the hurley, off the ball. Joe’s heart was surely pounding as James reached for his cards but with David gamely getting to his feet, yellow was the colour. A let-off, and how Portumna profited.

Ah, but Ollie, captain Ollie. So many times in that second half, the game there to be won, it was the 37-year-old veteran (now plying his trade as a creative wing-forward rather than man-marking corner-back) showing Portumna the way.

A full-pace pick-up of a ball stuck in the Semple Stadium mud on 44 minutes was a moment that stood out, but there was so much more from a man who always had that something special. He used his guile to good effect, winning frees when there was nothing else on, in a situation where he knew brother Joe would then do the necessary.

Portumna were simply too good. Kevin Downes and Cathal King did their best, and a subdued Shane Dowling did goal for Na Piarsaigh, a 57th minute penalty, but all too late.

Schooled, dejected? Yes to both, says Sean Stack, but it will only make them stronger.

“Conditions tonight came down to experience, guile, doing the right thing, slowing it down. Portumna knew how to pull frees. They left their hands open, ran in with their chests to shoulders. A shoulder into the chest is a free, I understand that, but they knew perfectly how to do it but we admire them for that. It’s all part of the game and no discredit to them at all. Hard to charge the batteries again and get back in again next year. But we’re a good team, we have a future, there’s no doubt about that.”

Scorers for Portumna: J Canning (0-9, seven frees, one sideline); R O’Meara (1-2); A Smith, O Canning, D Hayes, K Hayes (0-1 each).

Scorers for Na Piarsaigh: S Dowling (1-4, one pen, four frees); R Lynch (0-3, two sidelines); K Downes (0-2); K Ryan, P Gleeson (0-1 each).

PORTUMNA: J Keane; G Heagney, E McEntee, C O’Hare; P Smith, M Dolphin, E Lynch; J Canning, L Smith; K Hayes, D Hayes, O Canning; N Hayes, A Smith, R O’Meara.

Subs for Portumna: O Treacy for N Hayes (60).

NA PIARSAIGH: P Kennedy; M Casey, C King, K Breen; N Buckley, D Breen, J O’Brien (c); A Dempsey, W O’Donoghue; K Kennedy, K Downes, D Dempsey; K Ryan, S Dowling, R Lynch.

Subs for Na Piarsaigh: P Gleeson for Kennedy (27); D Sheppard for O’Donoghue (37); B Hartnett for Dempsey (53); J Madden for O’Brien (53).

Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath)

Game-changer

22nd minute, the decision by referee McGrath to issue yellow rather than a straight red card to Portumna star Joe Canning for a hurley-strike on David Duggan.

Talk of the town

Mount Leinster Rangers — yes, even in Thurles the Carlow and Leinster champions win in Newry was a matter of much discourse, all of it positive.

Did that just happen?

In his first competitive senior appearance with club or county (and believe it, there will be many more!), young Ronan Lynch (only 17 since November), hit three majestic points, one from halfway from play, two fromsideline balls.

Best on show

Joe and Ollie Canning were both outstanding but holding this supercharged Na Piarsaigh attack to 1-11 — take a bow Eugene McEntee, on behalf of all the Portumna defence.

Sideline superior

First blood to Na Piarsaigh for starting Ronan Lynch, great decision; Portumna too were wise, played Joe Canning in midfield where he was pulling so many strings. Portumna pulling an extra man back in defence late on, also spot on. Na Piarsaigh brought on the 7th cavalry but none really had an effect.

The man in black

James McGrath (Westmeath) was as close as could be to the Canning incident, should have shown red — poor decision. Otherwise did ok.

What’s next?

All-Ireland final against Mount Leinster Rangers on March 17th for Portumna, their fifth final in six attempts since 2004; start of 2014 Limerick season for Na Piarsaigh.


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