A TWO-MINUTE spell immediately before and after the half-time break proved crucial for Oulart-The Ballagh as they held out under intense pressure in the closing minutes to fashion a one-point victory over a strong and committed Kilmacud Crokes side in this exciting AIB Leinster Club Senior hurling championship quarter-final played in dreadful conditions at Parnell Park, Donnycarney, on Sunday last.
As Oulart-The Ballagh struggled through the opening 30 minutes to create some daylight between themselves and their opponents, one could see the newly-crowned Dublin champions growing in confidence, so much so that as the game moved into firsthalf additional time it took a Nicky Kirwan goal from a semi-penalty to separate the sides.
When they resumed with two points inside a minute of the re-start followed by a Darren Nolan effort two minutes later, they had stretched into a six-point advantage and were looking quite comfortable.
The soft underfoot conditions along with heavy rain made it difficult for hurling. But both defences displayed the ruthless play that comes with such conditions as the respective forward lines struggled to bring cohesion and finishing power to their games.
It always looked that this was a game that would go right down to the wire, but when the Wexford champions created that six-point cushion one expected them to close out the game. Instead it was Kilmacud who lifted their challenge with a huge final quarter effort.
Given the fact that many of their players had figured in the county Senior football final at the same venue six days earlier, one was baffled as to where they found the reserves of energy to gradually peg their opponents back, getting level five minutes from the end. But credit to Oulart-The Ballagh as they kept their composure and showed their experience as they battled their way back, forcing a free 30 seconds from the end that Kirwan pointed which proved enough to send them into a semi-final clash with the Kilkenny champions on November 25.
It was an uplifting victory for the Oulart-The Ballagh men. Some quarters had doubted their ability to mix it on the provincial stage but they answered those critics with a positive 60 minutes of hurling, as they not alone overcame the heavy conditions but also a side that showed huge courage and commitment.
So the search for that first provincial crown goes on. They combined aggressively and effectively but they will be looking to create more momentum when their semi-final comes around in just over two weeks' time.
The Dublin champions opened with a spell of passion and power, leading to a Seánie McGrath pointed free inside 90 seconds which put them in front. But it took their opponents less than 30 seconds to get back level as midfielder David Redmond collected the puck-out to strike the levelling point.
One minute later Ross O'Carroll had the home side back in front, but by the sixth minute Oulart-The Ballagh were ahead for the first time through Paul Roche, having collected a quick Darren Stamp free, and a fine Garrett Sinnott individual effort, leaving them leading by 0-3 to 0-2.
When Conor O'Leary pointed an 80-metre free after eight minutes, the Wexford champions looked to be settling into the game, but once again they were pushed back on defence, leading to a point from Damien Kelly. After Nicky Kirwan had extended his side into a 0-5 to 0-3 lead, the eventual winners had a real let-off when 'keeper Ben O'Connor seemed to have been caught off his line at the end of the opening quarter, but he somehow recovered to take the dipping ball from under the crossbar.
Oulart-The Ballagh should have goaled after 19 minutes. Paul Roche, following some fine play, moved the ball inside to the unmarked Nicky Kirwan, but the corner-forward in an attempt to widen his angle delayed his shot, leaving 'keeper Matt Collins time to advance and block the effort out for a '65 that Conor O'Leary pointed, leaving his side leading by 0-6 to 0-4.
As the sides continued to trade points, a Rory Jacob effort two minutes before the break left Oulart-The Ballagh ahead by 0-8 to 0-7. One minute into additional time, Damien Kelly had the sides back level, but one minute later, Kirwan was fouled close to the end-line. From the resulting semi-penalty he blasted high into the right-hand corner of the net to give his side a 1-8 to 0-8 lead, somewhat against the run of play.
Oulart-The Ballagh seemed determined to close out the Kilmacud challenge as within 30 seconds of the re-start Rory Jacob had pointed, while 30 seconds later Kirwan pointed from play. When Darren Nolan fetched a high ball to race through for a fine individual point, they had moved into a 1-11 to 0-8 lead after 34 minutes.
However, they became somewhat casual with their shooting as they hit four wides in succession, before Kilmacud Crokes broke their barren spell with a 43rdminute McGrath pointed free. Three minutes later the same player once again pointed a free to reduce the deficit to four points (1-11 to 0-10).
A Conor O'Leary point from a loose clearance helped to lift the siege, but Kilmacud Crokes put in a storming closing ten minutes. Seán McGrath struck two points, one from a free, before he managed to flick a Ross O'Carroll ball across the face of the goal to the net, leaving the sides level (1-12 apiece) with five minutes remaining.
Kilmacud Crokes were growing in stature so it was going to take all of Oulart-The Ballagh's experience and hurling skills to salvage this game. They had a lot of work to do but they battened down the hatches and forced their way back into an attacking situation, leading Garrett Sinnott to be fouled on the 21-metre line, about 14 metres to the right of goal. Nicky Kirwan held his nerve to point his side back in front with 30 seconds of normal time remaining, but their supporters still had to watch an anxious finish as a huge McGrath 80-metre free fell just short, with a free out then being awarded.
It was sufficient to get them over the line after what was a dramatic and exciting second-half given the horrible conditions.