OULART-THE BALLAGH were delivered a knockout blow for the third successive final when they went under to a four-point defeat to underdogs Kilcormac-Killoughey in an enthralling AIB Leinster Club Senior hurling championship decider played at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday last.
Full-forward Dan Currams provided the perfect early tonic for the Offaly men as his opening-minute goal was the start that they needed, and it helped to inspire a sensational four-point victory over the hot prematch favourites who only led once in the game - and that was after just 30 seconds when Rory Jacob put them in front.
But in truth, Oulart-The Ballagh were always playing catch-up as they were beaten in far too many facets of the game, particularly in aerial combat, an area that the Offaly champions dominated throughout.
The Wexford side's challenge was not helped by the direct swap of Garrett Sinnott and Conor O'Leary before the throw-in, as playing O'Leary on the fringe of the square pitted a boy against a man, with the physically powerful Ger Healion dominating in front of goal.
It was not until the switch of Sinnott to fullforward at the start of the second period that they threatened in front of goal, with only the 'keeper denying him with two marvellous saves. It was clear that their opponents were playing with such confidence and composure that Oulart-The Ballagh were never going to win this game unless they managed a goal, and once that failed to arrive, the writing was on the wall. Indeed, apart from Sinnott, one always wondered where the major was going to come from.
For the Wexford champions it was the agony of a third successive final defeat while it was ecstasy for Kilcormac-Killoughey who crowned what has been an historic season for the club. They lifted the Offaly Senior hurling title for the first time this year and, while there were doubts with neutral supporters going into this game, the Offaly champions had full belief in their own ability as they fashioned a hugelyimpressive and historic victory in the end, having held the advantage for lengthy stretches of the 60 minutes.
This was a momentous day in the history of the Offaly club as they now enter the record books having lifted a provincial crown at the first time of asking. It was a fairytale ending as their captain, Ciarán Slevin, lifted the cup to scenes of real emotion as his side was cheered to the echo, with hundreds of supporters celebrating on the pitch.
As players and followers savoured this historic occasion, team manager Danny Owens was lifted shoulder high on the centre of the pitch, but he was in no way surprised at the result.
Clearly overcome with emotion, the former Offaly midfielder said: 'I am not one bit surprised with the result. We played to the best of our ability. It's a real fairytale, our first county Senior hurling title, and now a first provincial title at the first time of asking.
'The bookmakers had us rank outsiders but it's what happens out here on the pitch. We played with courage and heart, but also with ability. The early goal gave us a cushion, of that there's no doubt.
'They got back to within two points of us at one stage in the second-half but it was only briefly. Dan Currams had gone off with a head injury. I did not think he would come back on but he did and got two vital points. It's marvellous for the club, the players and supporters. We'll enjoy this but now we must prepare for another game.'
Oulart-The Ballagh were left gutted at a third successive final defeat but Pat Herbert had no excuses.
'They seemed hugely hungry for the game. The early goal put us under pressure as we were unable to claw it back. We put on a tremendous amount of pressure at the start of the second-half, were unlucky not to have had a couple of goals, but it did not happen for us on the day.'
The game swung on one incident just 60 seconds in following the throw-in. After Rory Jacob had pointed Oulart-The Ballagh in front within 30 seconds of the start, the Offaly champions in their first attack straight from the puck-out got the game's only goal, which was to prove so crucial.
Oulart-The Ballagh full-back Keith Rossiter seemed to have an attack under control, but his attempted clearance was blocked with the ball transferred inside to full-forward Dan Currams who kept his composure and made the few vital metres before crashing an unstoppable shot past 'keeper Ben O'Connor, giving his side a 1-0 to 0-1 lead they were never subsequently to lose.
During the opening 30 minutes Kilcormac-Killoughey played with passion and purpose while one had to admire their workrate, refusing to allow their opponents settle on the ball. The Wexford champions were determined to stay in contention as they responded with points from Conor O'Leary and Rory Jacob, but despite this the eventual winners always seemed capable of responding as they bounced back for points from James Gorman and a Ciarán Slevin free to lead by 1-2 to 0-3 after ten minutes.
The Kilcormac-Killoughey supporters were really enjoying it as Peter Geraghty and Slevin (free) added points, while a Nicky Kirwan pointed free kept his side in touch. However, they were clearly feeling the pressure, not being allowed to play their usual fluent brand of hurling.
As the game approached the break, three points separated the sides. Peter Geraghty and Darren Nolan went on to exchange points, but the Kilcormac-Killoughey confidence must have been high, going in with a 1-7 to 0-7 interval lead.
Within two minutes of the re-start James Gorman fired over a point to extend his side's lead, while at the opposite end Garrett Sinnott, who had moved to full-forward, forced a wonderful save out of ' keeper Conor Slevin. Sinnott was causing problems on the friinge of the square as, for the first time, they were contesting the high ball.
This ultimately led to a free that Nicky Kirwan pointed, while after 36 minutes, Sinnott played a ground pass into the path of Kirwan but the ball flew harmlessly wide off his boot.
Kilcormac-Killoughey lifted the siege through a superb long-range point from Brian Leonard, while one minute later at the opposite end Sinnott flicked overhead from a dropping Kirwan free but once again 'keeper Slevin was equal to the occasion with a superb save.
After a Ciarán Slevin pointed free had extended his side's lead to 1-10 to 0-8 after 40 minutes, Oulart-The Ballagh faced a mammoth challenge. They responded with two Kirwan frees and a long David Redmond effort to reduce the deficit to two points (1-10 to 0-11) with eight minutes remaining.
When it looked as if the Wexford champions had hauled themselves back with a realistic chance of victory, Currams - who returned to the game at the interval - fired over the closing two points, with the defence holding firm in the face of an Oulart-The Ballagh onslaught during the closing two minutes plus two additional time to create their own piece of history and set up an All-Ireland semi-final date with Thurles Sarsfields.