Loughmore-Castleiney claimed their third Clean Ireland Recycling county senior hurling title at Semple Stadium, Thurles on Sunday when they hung on by the slenderest of advantages to deny Eire Og, Nenagh the crown that looked their’s for the taking at half-time.
In typical Loughmore-Castleiney fashion they refused to capitulate when things were not going well for them in the first half, and ground out victory with a hugely improved second half showing, though Eire Og players and supporters will have left Thurles feeling they they should at least have taken the game to a replay.
It was a final which, after a tame enough first half, really came to life after the break to the delight of the 7,195 attendance, and while the honours went to Loughmore-Castleiney, the Nenagh lads contributed enormously to a contest worthy of a county final.
Nenagh, who went into the decider as the “form” team, with the scalps of last year’s victors, Sarsfields, and second favourites, Drom-Inch, under their belt, underlined the quality of their challenge in a brisk opening quarter at the end of which they led 1-5 to 0-2. With Barry Heffernan operating to good effect as a sweeper in front of the defence, and Andrew Coffey from the attack, bolstering midfield, they had Loughmore on the backfoot.
The Mid side’s cause was not helped by some very slack finishing and they registered five wides in the opening twelve minutes. In contrast, Nenagh were fluent and economical, Pearse Morris, Richie Flannery and Mikey Heffernan pointing inside four minutes to give them the perfect start.
It got better for Nenagh. Liam and Aidan McGrath points opened Loughmore’s account, but in the 11th minute Paddy Murphy moved smartly on to a Barry Heffernan delivery and gave Shane Nolan in the Loughmore goal no chance with a perfect strike. Andrew Coffey and Tommy Heffernan whipped over further points and Eire Og were 1-5 to 0-2 clear after fourteen minutes.
The North division representatives were comfortable and cruising in a contest that was lacking in championship intensity and had its fair share of errors on both sides. Loughmore were to finish the half with eleven wides as too frequently they unsuccessfully sought scores from distance , their inside forwards getting little in the line of quality ball and they must surely have been greatly frustrated as the wides count mounted.
Their defence also looked vulnerable with Richie Flannery, Pearse Morris, and Mikey Heffernan causing problems but yet Nenagh arrived at half-time only four points ahead, 1-7 to 0-6, Loughmore outpointing them four to two in the second quarter. Noel McGrath, David Kennedy, Liam McGrath and Aidan McGrath were their marksmen with Mikey Heffernan and Pearse Morris replying for Nenagh.
Loughmore-Castleiney realised they were in trouble and needed to move up a gear after the break. With the favour of the breeze they proceeded to carry the game to their rivals who, inexplicably, never operated with the fluency or purpose of the first half.
Cian Hennessy fired over a Loughmore point inside a minute. Mikey Heffernan blazed over the bar from a penalty for Nenagh when Richie Flannery was fouled in the 33rd minute. A goal then would almost certainly have settled the issue.
Noel McGrath began to have a growing influence on the game now. A pointed sixty five by him and another point from over ninety yards added to the Loughmore momentum. Paddy Murphy steadied the ship for Nenagh with a point but Noel McGrath was again on target for Loughmore in the 37th minute.
The tempo and quality of the game was picking up steadily as Mikey Heffernan shot two points for Nenagh in the 39th minute to restore their four points advantage, but inside two minutes, Noel McGrath twice pointed for Loughmore. Pearse Morris for Nenagh and Cian Hennessy for Loughmore swapped points before the decisive moment in the 44th minute when Liam McGrath moved smartly on to John Meagher’s delivery to crack home a Loughmore goal and give them the lead for the first time in the game.
Things were now going Loughmore’s way, interms of breaking ball, rising confidence, and most notably a missed free by the invariably reliable Mikey Heffernan for Nenagh, before a Tomas McGrath point put Loughmore two clear with ten minutes to go.
The closing period was hectic and when they reflect on it, Nenagh will be left regretting the chances they let slip as they registered seven second half wides. Mikey Heffernan and Noel McGrath traded points but points by Nenagh’s Paddy Murphy and Heffernan had the sides level at 1-15 each with five minutes to play.
The bit was between Loughmore’s teeth now and team captain Ciaran McGrath restored their lead in the 57th minute. Evan Sweeney doubled it a minute later, but as the clock ticked away, Mikey Heffernan again pointed for Nenagh.
In a nail-biting finish, Nenagh laid siege to the Loughmore goal, and had a couple of chances of grabbing a levelling point, but heroic defence by the Loughmore rearguard denied them, to leave Loughmore victorious by a single point, their first success since 2007, and their third in all, on the day that the men who brought them their first title in 1988 were feted as the Tipperary Star Team of the Past.
It was as sweet a triumph as the Loughmore –Castleiney club has ever savoured and while they would have to acknowledge that they were a shade fortunate, they really made their own luck by the gritty manner in which they stuck to their task when things were not going well. They could yet complete a unique county senior double as next Sunday they play Clonmel Commercials in the county senior football semi-final, an assignment which curtailed celebrations this week.
One feels too that there is more in this Loughmore-Castleiney side yet and with Na Piarsaigh of Limerick providing the opposition in the Munster Club championship on October 27th, the prospect of a second provincial title to follow that of 2007 is alive and well.
Noel McGrath was named Man of the Match, an award richly deserved as his second half hurling inspired the Loughmore recovery. Remarkably, his father, Pat, received the Man of the Match award in the 1988 final, 25 years ago. Pat bagged the winning goal back then and was a selector with the current side as he watched his sons NOel and JOhn playing starring roles alongside five of their cousins. Centre halfback John Meagher must have run him close for the accolade as he was a dominant figure for them when the pressure was greatest. Tommy Long enjoyed the freedom that goes with being “the extra man” in defence where Tom King turned in yet another solid performance. Tomas McGrath got through a lot of work at midfield while Cian Hennessy and Liam McGrath got important scores.
The victory was surely a massive lift to defender Eddie Connolly who missed out on the game having taken ill after the semi-final clash with Borris-Ileigh. He had attended training during the week following very serious surgery and although not present in Semple Stadium on the day, he was never far from the thoughts of his teammates.
Eire Og were seeking their first win since 1995 but, apart from the opening quarter, never reached the heights of previous games. Yet, they could so easily have won and were probably, on balance, entitled to a second chance, but things don’t always work out as they should. It all seemed to be going so smoothly for them but then they appeared to lose their shape and once Loughmore hit the front, they were struggling.
Mikey Heffernan was their leading marksman with eight points, five from play, but Pearse Morris, and Paddy Murphy also did well. Barry Heffernan, John Brennan, and Noel Moloney were others to put in a decent shift.
Loughmore-Castleiney – S Nolan; T Long, D Bourke, J Hennessy; A McGrath(0-2,2fs), J Meagher, T King; C McGrath(0-1), T McGrath(0-1); J McGrath, D Kennedy(0-1), N McGrath(0-7, 3fs); L McGrath(1-2,0-1f), E Sweeney(0-1), C Hennessy(0-2); Sub- M Webster for Kennedy;
Eire Og, Nenagh – M McNamara; M Flannery, N Maloney, J Brennan; D Quinn, H Maloney, Billy Heffernan; Barry Heffernan, K Tucker; P Morris(0-3), M Heffernan(0-8,3fs), T Heffernan(0-1); A Coffey(0-1), P Murphy(1-2), R Flannery(0-1); Subs- P Ryan for Coffey; Donncha Quinn for Billy Heffernan; J Slattery for P Ryan;
Ref- J McCormack, Knockavilla Kickhams.
Footnote: The game was preceded by a minutes silence in memory of the late Nancy Treacy, mother of John and Pat Treacy who won county titles with Loughmore Castleiney in 1988 and who was gran-aunt of seven of the current squad members. Also remembered was Tony Rabbitte of Borris-Ileigh, a staunch GAA man who died recently. Both received warm applause from the attendance prior to the throw-in.