Sunday 25 September 2016

Clynch's late free nails epic Ring triumph for Royals

Dermot Crowe

Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30

Meath players celebrate after their dramatic Christy Ring Cup final victory
over Antrim in Croke Park. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Meath players celebrate after their dramatic Christy Ring Cup final victory over Antrim in Croke Park. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

There will never be a Christy Ring final like this one, an absorbing match that the man the competition perpetuates would surely have approved of. Meath, brave beyond belief, survived multiple episodes of adversity before claiming a historic first win in the competition and a place in next year's Leinster Championship round robin series.

Meath 4-21 Antrim 5-17

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The events of three weeks ago, when they celebrated a victory only to later discover it deemed invalid due to a score-keeping error by the match referee, placed a formidable psychological challenge before them.

Steven Clynch of Meath celebrates at the final whistle after scoring the winning point. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Steven Clynch of Meath celebrates at the final whistle after scoring the winning point. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Saturday's rematch tested them further but with remarkable spirit and obduracy they would not yield and managed to absorb setbacks that might have broken the will of another team.

Their training regime that began last November paid dividends as they kept coming back at Antrim and were the dominant team after half time in normal time and through the extra time periods.

But they left themselves with another mountain to climb. Nine points down the first day, this time they were eight behind by half time when Antrim led 2-8 to 0-6, Ciaran Clark scoring the first goal in the third minute and Conor Johnson the second just before the break.

Meath relied heavily on captain James Toher for scores and most of his free taking was exemplary, 0-11 of his 0-12 from dead balls. He had five of their six first half points, Stephen Morris scoring their only point from play.

David Donogue of Meath, left, and team-mate Jack Walsh celebrate. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
David Donogue of Meath, left, and team-mate Jack Walsh celebrate. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

But Meath were transformed in the second half, Neil Heffernan scoring a 40th minute goal as they hit 1-4 without reply. Antrim didn't score until the 48th minute, through Niall McKenna, but Meath were level within five minutes.

Another goal from Heffernan three minutes later pushed them in front and they were four points clear on the hour mark, completing a 12-point swing.

Having lost their place in the Leinster Championship last year, Antrim were poor but dogged, with Johnston and Clarke their main threat in attack until McKenna's move to the full forward line reaped a reward. Of Antrim's 2-4 in the second half of normal time, 1-4 was his. The goal came three minutes from and nosed Antrim in front.

A minute later substitute Stephen Clynch replied with a goal for Meath and when Sean Quigley pointed they looked safe. But in the last of four minutes of injury time, from the final puck, Darren Hamill forced extra-time, sweeping the ball to the net.

Meath shot 17 wides to Antrim's five over the normal match time and appeared to have blown their chance, their big support in the 2,938 attendance stunned into silence by Hamill's strike. But there was much more drama left.

Antrim edged ahead again in extra-time before Gavin McGowan goaled to put Meath back in front, 4-16 to 4-14. At the midpoint they were two points up and showing no signs of fatigue.

Sean Quigley stretched the Meath lead on the restart only for James Connolly to race through and goal and level the teams again. Antrim hit the next two points but Meath wouldn't buckle.

Clynch took over the frees when Toher missed some within his range and nailed the two late ones that came his way. In between Toher had one from play in a three-point streak that turned the game one final time.

The winner came from Clynch's free after Joe Keena stole the ball from Eoghan Campbell as Antrim looked to launch a possible winning attack in injury time.

Instead, Antrim lost possession, panicked and fouled Keena. Clynch held his nerve to knock over the winning score.

If Toher, the captain, was lost for words on the podium afterwards that was entirely understandable. The Meath players will remember this day for the rest of their lives.

 

SCORERS: Meath - J Toher 0-12 (0-11 fs); N Heffernan 2-0, S Clynch 1-3 (0-2 fs), G McGowan 1-0, A Gannon, S Quigley 0-2, S Morris, J Keena 0-1. Antrim - C Clarke 1-5 (0-1 f; 0-1 65), N McKenna 1-5, C Johnston 1-2, D Hamill, J Connolly 1-0, D McKiernan 0-2, N Elliott, E Campbell, S McAfee 0-1.

MEATH - S McGann; S Geraghty, R Sherlock, D Donoghue; S Brennan, K Keoghan, S Whitty; S Heavey, S Morris; J Keena, D Healy, A Gannon; G McGowan, N Heffernan, J Toher.

Subs: S Clynch for Brennan (half-time); S Quigley for Heavey (46); M O'Grady for J Keena (72); J Keena for O'Grady (82); S Heavey for Heffernan (85).

ANTRIM - E Gillan; P Burke, T McCloskey, S McCrory; O McFadden, N McAuley, F Donnelly; E Campbell, E McCloskey; N McKenna, C Johnston, S McAfee; N Elliott, B McCarry, C Clarke. Subs: PJ O'Connell for Elliott (40 mins); D McKiernan for McCarry (49); J Connolly for T McCloskey (59); K Keena for Heffernan (65); D Hamill for McKenna (69); N McKenna for Johnston (half-time, extra-time); J Dillon for O'Connell (92).

REF - C McAllister (Cork).

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