Whelahan experiment pays off for classy Birr
BIRR 3-15 ST RYNAGH'S 1-11 ``WE'LL frighten everybody now,'' grinned Simon Whelahan in the chill of St Brendan's Park yesterday as Birr collected their fourteenth Offaly County Hurling title with impassive calm.
Save a few thorny shoots of enmity, the electricity remained strictly low-amp, St Rynagh's being brushed aside in the most lop-sided showdown seen since Kinnity dissected Seir Kieran fourteen years ago.
Whelahan clasped the man of the match trophy as he spoke, reward for a startling endorsement of his father, Pat Joe's decision to reinvent him as a forward in mid-season.
Simon may well collect an allstar award for the majesty of his performances at corner-back in Offaly's colours this year. But, for Birr, he has become game-keeper turned poacher.
Just seven days after Offaly lost that tumultuous All-Ireland semi-final to Cork, Birr were struggling against Kilcormac in the local championship. Having played with a gale, they led by a solitary point. Pat Joe sensed they needed goals.
Simon was despatched to full-forward and the rest is 24-carat Disney. His goal dismantled Kilcormac's challenge, he scored two more against Clareen in the semi-final and yesterday bagged another brace.
This time, both goals fell within two minutes of the resumption and effectively left Rynagh's as mobile and defiant as a row of old boat timbers. Six points down after thirty minutes, they were thirteen adrift and done for after thirty two.
``I took the gamble,'' smiled Pat Jo beneath a copse of embracing arms. ``Putting Simon in the forwards has paid off for us all through this championship. He has a great brain and he's delivered the goals.''
Thus the '98 All-Ireland Club champions are back in kilter and if appearances are anything to go by imbued with a bullish confidence about their destiny in the new Millennium.
They lined out in a strangely tangled formation, only five players starting in the positions listed. Yet, from the outset, Rynagh's struggled to match the sheer clarity of their focus.
Michael Duignan started on the ``forty'' against county colleague Brian `Sid' Whelahan, but had been shunted to the relative tranquility of wing-forward long before the mid-point. Whelahan's defeat of Duignan was, to some degree, a distillation of the game.
Rynagh's had started without injured duo, Colm Keane and Alan Kelly. And they were continually discomforted by Birr's brisk tempo, the quick puck-out setting them tripping backwards with surprising regularity.
This ploy led to Birr's first goal after eleven minutes when Simon Whelahan collected Brian Mullins' delivery and with the Rynagh's defence seemingly frozen he despatched inside to Oisin O'Neill who goaled almost casually.
The Banagher men were leaning heavily now the free-taking skills of wing-forward Eunan Martin to stay afloat. And, when Martin scored with a sublime sideline cut after sixteen minutes, the 6,000 crowd briefly glimpsed visions of a serious confrontation. It never materialised.
With captain, Declan Pilkington (``it's terrible to see him not playing for Offaly when he's in that form'' Pat Joe) running riot at full-forward, Birr always looked to be moving with greater fluency.
The one stumbling block they encountered was a man called Martin Hanamy. The Rynagh's No 4 was, effectively, despatched to wherever trouble sprang. He finished the half on Birr's captain, but soon Simon Whelahan was in his headlights.
Just seventeen seconds after the resumption, Gary Hannify stretched Birr's lead with a point from the right wing and soon the contest was history. From the puck-out, Hannify drove the sliotar back in, David Hughes flailed, Simon hit the rigging.
Fifty five seconds later, he had another goal fielding Declan Pilkington's cross and finishing calmly to Hughes' right corner. Hanamy was immediately given charge of his county colleague. But it was too late.
The great corner-back did his job with customary aplomb, yet Rynagh's were in too deep now.
Simon did not score for the closing 25 minutes, nor did he need to. ``Martin (Hanamy) sort of psyched me out of it after I got the two goals,'' he revealed. ``He came over and started talking to me, started laughing.
``It took my mind off the game a little bit. But I suppose he's done it to a few great forwards over the years. He's the best in the business and, hopefully, he'll be there with the county again next year.''
Indeed so. Hanamy apart, Rynagh's had little defiance save a mean-spirited flurry of blows in the Birr ``square'' which left goalkeeper, Mullins, grounded and in need of four minutes attention for a head injury.
The Banagher boys did outscore Birr 1-5 to 0-4 in the closing quarter, but it was a sheepish, empty gesture.
The game was dead and Birr's hero was a backman playing in a different postal code. Does he enjoy running among the poachers? ``No I don't,'' said Simon.
``I can read the game better playing at corner-back because I play in front of my man. In the forwards I'm inclined to stay behind and Pat Joe is always onto me to get out in front.
``I really enjoyed today, but I don't want people to start talking of me as a forward''.
He may have little choice soon.
MAN OF THE MATCH Simon Whelahan (Birr).
SCORERS Birr: S Whelahan 2-2, O O'Neill 1-4 (0-3 fs), G Hannify 0-4, D Pilkington 0-3, C McClone 0-1, Brian Whelahan 0-1 (f). St Rynagh's: E Martin 0-4 (0-2 fs), G O'Connor 1-0, P Mulhare, F Dolan 0-2 each, H Rigney, E Mulhare, M Duignan 0-1 each.
BIRR B Mullins; Barry Whelahan, J Errity, B Hennessy; D Franks, Brian Whelahan, N Claffey; J Pilkington, G Cahill; L Power, C McClone, G Hannify; O O'Neill, D Pilkington, S Whelahan. Subs: D Regan for McClone (51 mins.), P Murphy for Power (60 mins.), K Spillane for O'Neill (60 mins).
ST RYNAGH'S D Hughes; M Rigney, S Rigney, M Hanamy; S Horan, H Rigney, L Egan; P Mulhare, D Kelly; E Martin, K McGee, E Mulhare; G O'Connor, M Duignan, F Dolan. Subs. K Flannery for McGee (half-time), C Keane for S Rigney (36 mins.), A Kelly for Horan (41 mins.).
REF M Kirwan (Ballyskenagh).