It took a monstrous injury-time free from Clough-Ballacolla goalkeeper Danny Hanlon to save his side from an unlikely exit from this year’s championship at the hands of their long-time yet unfancied rivals Castletown-Slieve Bloom on Saturday night in Portlaoise.
Senior Hurling Championship
As reigning champions against a side believed by many to be past their best, Clough Ballacolla would have been strong favourites coming into the tie and Picky Maher’s opener got them off to a solid start. However, John O’Sullivan’s side looked out of sorts and the first half saw Ballacolla commit a huge amount of unforced passing and handling errors that galvanised Castletown’s belief.
Clough Ballacolla hit five poor wides in the opening ten minutes and with that sort of inaccuracy Castletown Slieve Bloom started to sense an opportunity. It did take them a full thirteen minutes to get off the mark after an extremely scrappy start from both sides but Patrick Mullaney whipped a fine effort over the bar and the underdogs were up and running.
Three more quickly followed without a reply from as Ballacolla conceded numerous frees that Ben and Kevin Conroy both punished from different areas of the field. Picky Maher nabbed his and his side’s second point of the game with seven minutes of the half remaining but Clough Ballacolla’s reluctance to send early ball into the likes of Maher and Willie Hyland played right in Castletown Slieve Bloom’s hands.
Ben Conroy and Shane Hanlon traded scores before two late Castletown points from Brendan Reddin and David Cuddy saw their side amass a four point advantage at the interval on a 0-7 to 0-3 scoreline.
A return of three first-half points suggested that all was not well with Clough-Ballacolla but when they resumed there was at least a greater urgency about their attacking play. Ben Conroy’s early point stretched the Castletown lead but Willie Dunphy responded at the other end before a magnificent goal-line save from full-back Gearoid Gaughan denied Willie Hyland from the 21 yard line. Hyland did however convert the resulting ’65 and Clough Ballacolla appeared to be finding their form.
Ben Conroy produced a number of excellent scores with his trademark direct runs at goal and he pointed well seven minutes in to restore the four point lead but it would be fifteen minutes before his side managed another score and when they did they would be two points behind as Ballacolla kicked into gear.
Willie Hyland earned and converted a free before Willie Dunphy gathered a long Danny Hanlon clearance and pointed in style. Hyland was starting to impose himself on proceedings and when he was fouled on the edge of the area he stepped up to fire the resulting free into the back of the net and Castletown were behind for the first time since the opening score of the game.
Hyland’s ’65 put two between them with ten minutes to go and few would have fancied a tiring Castletown side to come back at that stage. Ben Conroy and Danny Hanlon traded frees, the first of two huge conversions from Hanlon that would prove to be Ballacolla’s saving grace just a few minutes later. Conroy repeated the trick from a free won by great work from David Cuddy before the score of the game levelled matters with three minutes to go with James Hooban collecting a low Fionan Cuddy ball to launch a superb score between the posts.
Time was running out, and Damien Bergin’s score sent Ballacolla back in front. Ben Conroy equalised in the last minute and then a needless foul in the middle of the park handed Conroy the chance to put Castletown in front. Tom Delaney’s refusal to retreat made it a handier prospect and Conroy made no mistake.
Regulation time was up, Castletown were on the verge of a shock advancement. They retained possession but a careless cross field ball ended up with Ballacolla getting a free of their own. It was a huge ask for Danny Hanlon. He had done it once earlier but this was the last puck of the ball and he knew it. The pressure must have been huge but he confounded that with a massive effort from his own ’45 yard line and with that Brochan O’Reilly called a halt to a wonderfully exciting conclusion.
SCORERS - Castletown-Slieve Bloom: Ben Conroy 0-10 (six frees), Brendan Reddin, Kevin Conroy (free), David Cuddy and Patrick Mullaney 0-1 each; Clough Ballacolla: Willie Hyland 1-3 (1-3 frees), Danny Hanlon (two frees), Stephen Maher and Willie Dunphy 0-2 each, Shane Hanlon and Damien Bergin 0-1 each.
CASTLETOWN-SLIEVE BLOOM: Ger Cuddy; Tom Phelan, Gearoid Gaughan, Enda Conroy; Kevin Conroy, Declan Keenan, Cyril Cuddy; Fionnan Cuddy, Paul Cuddy; Brian Ferns, Brendan Reddin, Ben Conroy; James Hooban, David Cuddy, Patrick Mullaney. Subs: Barry McKelvey for C Cuddy (51 mins), John Gaughan for E Conroy (53 mins).
CLOUGH-BALLACOLLA: Danny Hanlon; John A Delaney, Darren Maher, Canice Coonan; Brendan McEvoy, Bill Duggan, Tom Delaney; Damien Bergin, Shane Hanlon; Ken Phelan, Mick McEvoy, Stephen Maher; Willie Dunphy, Willie Hyland, Mick Dunphy.
Referee: Brochan Reilly (Portlaoise)