BIRR 1-15 CLARECASTLE 3-9 GARY HANNIFFY, one of the impressive newcomers to come on stream since Birr's 1995 AIB All-Ireland club final win, played a hugely significant role in rescuing his side from defeat in this All-Ireland club hurling semi-final at Semple Stadium, Thurles, yesterday.
The replay was eventually forced by a 61st minute pressure free by Clarecastle's Ken Ralph. The Tipperary native, who came off second best in his duel with Joe Erritty, did not crack when asked to steer over the equaliser.
CAUGHT THE EYE
But it was Hanniffy's storming second-half which caught the eye. Started on the bench after a recent injury, he was introduced at half-time and, operating initially at centre half-forward and moving later to midfield, he was to emerge as a crucial figure in Birr's day.
Played in front of 8,500 supporters, this was an excellent game with a thrilling climax. At half-time, Birr led by 1-8 to 1-2 after playing with the breeze.
Their dominated the half, but their shooting remains problematic as they had eight wides in that period and were almost made to pay once Clarecastle turned the game around midway through the second-half.
Clarecastle's capacity to score goals has become almost an article of faith in this competition this year.
And they delivered within five minutes of the restart, Ralph hanging in behind a group of forwards and defenders to slam home a Victor O'Loughlin centre.
In the 42nd minute, Clarecastle drew level 1-10 to 3-4 when Danny Scanlan, a 21-year-old making a big play for inclusion in Ger Loughnane's squad, got on the end of a Robert Fitzgerald pass to beat Brian Mullins all ends up.
A minute later, Scanlan put Clarecastle ahead for the first time. With six minutes left, they were two up 1-12 to 3-8 and Birr appeared destined to slip further out of the match.
It was then that Gary Hanniffy threw open his broad shoulders and retrieved a desperate situation. Twice he came powering through the middle and twice Gary Cahill picked off points to level the game.
This created an air of expectation when next Hanniffy gained possession. He was all of 90 yards away from Clarecastle's goal and there were acres of space in front of him.
He elected to shoot directly, however, and into the eye of the breeze he drove over a powerful shot. Birr were one in front 1-15 to 3-8 but Clarecastle still had a minute or so.
In the ensuing frenzy, Fergus Tuohy was fouled and Ralph didn't blink. Both sides can feel relieved to get another chance.
Clarecastle's worst period was in the 20 minutes before half-time.
Johnny and Declan Pilkington enjoyed untold freedom, and Clarecastle's few raids yielded little thanks to the vigilance of Brian Whelehan, Joe Erritty, stylish Niall Claffey, and Simon Whelehan.
Birr, however, were on their way out until Hanniffy intervened. For the replay, most likely next Sunday at the same venue, they can look forward to starting Hanniffy and Oisin O'Neill.
Daithi Regan, who came on yesterday, will also benefit from the experience. But Hanniffy, on yesterday's form, could be the key.
Clarecastle went the entire encounter without introducing any subs. Victor O'Loughlin carried the midfield area for them, while Anthony Daly hurled solidly from start to finish.
In attack, Ger O'Loughlin had a good first-half, Fergie Tuohy was busy and brave, but as a unit they can be more effective. If they click, they have the winning of the replay and maybe the final too.
SCORERS Clarecastle: D Scanlan 2-3, K Ralph 1-4 (4f), F Tuohy 0-1, G O'Loughlin 0-1. Birr: G Cahill 0-6 (1f, 1 65), D Pilkington 1-1, G Hanniffy 0-2, D Hanniffy 0-2, P Carroll 0-1, J Pilkington 0-1, O O'Neill 0-1, L Power 0-1.
BIRR B Mullins; S Whelehan, J Erritty, B Hennessy; Barry Whelehan, Brian Whelehan, N Claffey; J Pilkington, C Hanniffy; D Hanniffy, C McGlone, D Pilkington; L Power, G Cahill, P Carroll. Subs: G Hanniffy for P Carroll, half-time; O O'Neill for B Hennessy, 41mins; D Regan for C McGlone, 52 mins.
CLARECASTLE T Hegarty; G Canny, M Sheedy, B Scanlan; P Healy, S Sheedy, A Daly; V O'Loughlin, K Morrissey; F Tuohy, A Neville, D Scanlan; R Fitzgerald, K Ralph, G O'Loughlin.
REF W Barrett (Tipperary).