Clough-Ballacolla battle past dogged Portlaoise in Round 1

Hurling Laois Shopping Centre SHC Round 1

Clough-Ballacolla battle past dogged Portlaoise in Round 1
By Rory Delaney @Express_Sport

Clough-Ballacolla got the defence of their Laois SHC title off to a winning start on Saturday night, as they saw off Portlaoise by six points.

In truth, it was a flattering margin of victory for Clough-Ballacolla, with Willie Dunphy's late goal giving the scoreboard a slightly skewed look.

The winners did lead from start to finish, but they never looked comfortable, and an unfancied Portlaoise side caused them problems. It wasn't a convincing performance from the champions, but considering they lost their opening round game last year, they won't be too worried. All involved will know much work needs to be done, however.

Clough-Ballacolla had started the game like a side intent on retaining their title, as Willie Dunphy hit two points inside the opening two minutes.

Portlaoise, without Cahir Healy and experienced defender Keith Murphy, were expected to struggle, but they showed no signs of that early on. Daniel Delaney opened their account with a fine score in the third minute, and good work from Tommy Fitzgerald set up Cian Taylor for an equalizer.

Fitzgerald then fired over the bar for the next score as Portlaoise took the lead, and they held it for five minutes until Willie Dunphy pointed again. Willie Hyland got up and running with a point from the left wing after that, and when Willie Dunphy got his fourth point in the 14th minute, it looked like Ballacolla were hitting their stride.

A good run and finish from Robbie Phelan edged them three clear, before Aaron Bergin and Willie Hyland (free) traded points. Clough-Ballacolla had a great chance of goal after that when Robbie Phelan was sent clear on goal, and with Portlaoise slow to close him down he unleashed a shot from 20 yards out. It was on target, but Noel Costello managed to tip it over the bar for a point.

Portlaoise responded well to that scare with points from Aaron Bergin (free) and Cian Taylor, but Ballacolla hit back with interest. Willie Hyland pointed again before two lovely scores from Stephen Bergin opened up their biggest lead of the half at five points.

They couldn't hold onto it though, and Aaron Bergin nailed two frees in injury time to keep Portlaoise right on their coat tails at the interval, 0-11 to 0-8 to score.

Ballacolla almost got the perfect start to the second half when Damien Bergin got through on goal, but his shot was brilliantly saved by Noel Costello. Willie Dunphy did open the scoring with another point, and three more score from Clough-Ballcolla over the next five minutes drew just one from Portlaoise, by Joe Phelan, to leave Ballacolla six clear.

It looked like that might be a big enough lead to break Portlaoise's spirits, but it was far from it.

They dug in after that, and had their best spell of the game, starting with a long range free from Noel Costello. Colm Gleeson, Joe Phelan and Aaron Bergin followed that score up points of their own, as the gap was whittled down to just two.

Momentum was with Portlaoise now, but Willie Hyland, Shane Hanlon and Stephen Bergin hit crucial scores for Ballacolla to send them clear again.

Portlaoise managed to keep one score between the sides, but in stoppage time, Robbie Phelan set up Willie Dunphy for the goal which clinched the win.