AIB Leinster Club Junior Football Championship Final: Rathgarogue-C'town 0-13 Clann na nGael 0-12 (AET)
The magnificent men of Rathgarogue-Cushinstown received the rich rewards their mighty collective effort so richly deserved in Páirc Tailteann, Navan, on Saturday when they made G.A.A. history by bringing the AIB Leinster Club Junior football championship crown back to Wexford for the first time.
A gripping contest may have been impossible to predict from an early stage, but ultimately the unquenchable resolve of the New Ross District men proved too much for their gutsy opponents to take as they came through the 20 minutes of extra-time with one point to spare.
It was a heart-stopping encounter with multiple twists and turns, and the success will be all the sweeter for Rathgarogue-Cushinstown because they had to achieve it the hard way.
They were slow to settle on an unfamiliar pitch and quickly fell three points in arrears, and then, just as they were finding their feet, they had to ship a huge blow when their big ball-winning midfielder, Daniel Martin Carroll, was forced off with an ankle injury.
If anything, though, the loss of such an influential figure spurred his colleagues on even more, and they must have been very happy to retire for the interval on level terms (0-7 each) with wind advantage to come.
The second-half developed into an absorbing battle, with players on both sides fighting for every ball as if their lives depended on it.
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown were hanging on to an 0-11 to 0-10 lead coming down the closing stretch when they suffered another setback when a black card was shown to full-back Peadar Cody.
And the game was almost two minutes into added time when Clann na nGael netminder Eoin Ó Gríofa came forward to kick the third of his four pointed frees and ensure parity.
The Meath men had the benefit of the breeze in the first additional ten-minute spell, but two superb points from Jason Dunne and Matthew Cody left their rivals in the driving seat at the break (0-13 to 0-11).
As soon as referee David Fedigan blew his whistle to signal the midway point of extra-time, a loud and passionate chant of 'Cushinstown, Cushinstown' started in the stand.
This was a collective effort to be sure, with the players doing the heavy lifting but the large travelling support also playing their part along with mentors James Bolger, Donie Noonan, John Michael Porter and Barry Murphy.
Those last ten minutes plus 90 added seconds felt like they lasted forever, especially after Clann na nGael free-taker Eoin Ó Gríofa made it a one-point game at a very early stage.
That proved to be the last score of the contest, though, and thankfully we were spared the farce of having a game of such importance decided by a penalty shoot-out.
I'm sure some of the Rathgarogue-Cushinstown crew would have fancied their chances from the spot, but it didn't come to that as instead they were engulfed on the field by their overjoyed supporters after holding on by the minimum margin.
It took several minutes before the new kings of Leinster made their way to the stand, where captain Matthew Cody received the trophy from Pat Teehan, Vice-Chairman of the Leinster Council.
They succeeded where St. Fintan's (twice) and Kilmore were unfortunate to fail in the past by winning this particular title for the first time, and they are just the second Wexford club to capture a Leinster football crown - following in the footsteps of Kilanerin who claimed Intermediate honours two years ago.
And now Blackhill Emeralds from Monaghan stand between them and a dream date in Croke Park in the new year, a prospect that will make this a very special Christmas around Ballinaboola and its environs.
Captain Cody had won the toss and opted to face the wind first, a calculated gamble given that it was always likely to take his team some time to settle in surroundings they had never played on before.
In contrast, Páirc Tailteann is a familiar stomping ground for Clann na nGael, and they eased 0-3 to nil clear after seven minutes thanks to two Cian Swaine frees, plus a neat score from overlapping wing-back Connor Fenton in between.
The Athboy and Rath Cairn men ended with three marksmen from placed balls, as midfielder Swaine was followed by goalkeeper Ó Gríofa and full-back Jack Doherty, but one of the most impressive aspects of the game was the outstanding feat of Rathgarogue-Cushinstown in restricting them to a mere three points from play over the 80-plus minutes.
The visitors had yet to score, after wides from Tadhg and Matthew Cody, when Daniel Martin Carroll contested a Clann na nGael kick-out following that second miss and landed awkwardly.
While he tried to shake it off by moving into the full-forward line, it was a forlorn exercise and he had to be replaced by Aaron Ryan ten minutes later.
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown required real leaders after that big blow, and that was the cue for the giant-hearted Bernard Furlong to step forward.
He was immense after moving to midfield, repeatedly winning possession and using his powerful frame to shake off would-be tacklers before delivering sensible passes to his team-mates.
Another important factor was the manner in which Eoin Porter was able to dictate the game from centre-back. Even though any homework done by Clann na nGael would have identified him as the main man, for long spells they couldn't lay a glove on him as he spearheaded his team's attacks into the wind.
And then there was Daire Bolger, the manager's son, at centre-forward. The sure sign of a classy footballer is one who never appears flustered on the ball, particularly when there's so much happening around them.
Bolger displayed that kind of composure in spades, and he also kicked a string of excellent points in a display that will be remembered long after the dust settles on this final.
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown needed something to boost them in the immediate aftermath of the loss of their midfielder, and it arrived when Porter picked out Matthew Cody to swing over their important opening score with his left boot in the 14th minute.
That point appeared to lift any tension that may have been holding them back, because Peadar Cody and Bernard Furlong quickly combined to feed Tadhg Cody who made it 0-3 to 0-2.
Every ball played in to Eric Cummins in the two-man full-forward line stuck early on, with one delivery from Porter leading to a foul and the leveller from Daire Bolger at the start of the second quarter.
Netminder Ó Gríofa came forward for the first time to restore Clann na nGael's lead from a free that favoured his left foot, and a cheap giveaway of possession led to the Meath side's second point from play, courtesy of Paul Tuite after a neat dummy (0-5 to 0-3).
Bolger and substitute Aaron Ryan combined before Robert Murphy - who had drifted out, as usual, from the full-forward line - made his run at the ideal time to pull back a point in the 21st minute.
Porter then located Bryan Cody loose in the 'D' as Rathgarogue-Cushinstown had to be patient to break down a heavily-populated defence, and his booming high kick brought the equaliser.
Another stray handpass was punished by Clann na nGael's best player, midfielder and captain Daragh Griffin, in the 28th minute but, incredibly, the Royals didn't score again from play.
Good work by Jason Dunne and Daire Bolger led to a swift response from Aaron Ryan, with the latter then putting his side ahead for the first time from a free before Ó Gríofa ensured parity at half-time (0-7 each).
A dipping shot by Clann na nGael midfielder Cian Swaine almost deceived Nicky Sinnott on the re-start, before Bolger and Swaine swapped points from frees.
Eoin Porter then sprayed a long free towards Jason Dunne who made a super catch for a small man before setting up Bolger to kick a lovely lead point (0-9 to 0-8).
Matthew Cody won the kick-out and was fouled, with Bolger judging the wind to perfection from 45 metres, but Porter squandered a very good chance for another point before Clann na nGael full-back Jack Doherty converted a free off the ground in the 43rd minute.
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown came close to a goal on their next attack, with Bolger dinking a neat pass into the path of Tadhg Cody, but Robert Murphy didn't get a decent connection on the ball when it broke at his feet.
The '45 that followed was sent wide by Bolger, but Doherty missed a free at the other end before the spirit of the Wexford men was summed up when Matthew Cody was fouled after robbing Daragh Griffin of possession by chasing him down in the middle third.
Tadhg Cody aimed a teasing lob towards Eric Cummins, but it was touched to safety by netminder Eoin Ó Gríofa, and Doherty then equalised from a free in the 53rd minute (0-10 each).
Bolger restored the lead after a foul on Aaron Ryan, but Peadar Cody was black-carded for body checking Philip Garry as the tension mounted.
Bryan Cody moved to full-back, with former Raheens (Kildare) clubman Mark Power entering the fray, and there was relief for Rathgarogue-Cushinstown when one free from Doherty dropped into the arms of Nicky Sinnott, before he hooked his next attempt wide at the near post.
Forty seconds of the two added minutes had elapsed when Clann na nGael substitute Darragh Swaine hit the woodwork with a point attempt, but the break was gathered by a colleague and referee David Fedigan blew for a free-in.
Eoin Ó Gríofa stood up to the pressure by equalising, and Rathgarogue-Cushinstown survived one late scare when Daire Bolger lost possession for once, and a swift breakaway initiated by Philip Garry ended with Cian Swaine kicking tamely into Nicky Sinnott's arms.
The tired limbs were evident in the first period of extra-time, especially from the Meath men as Daragh Griffin and Swaine (twice) landed weak kicks into Sinnott's chest.
In contrast, Rathgarogue-Cushinstown came up with two peaches of points that made all the difference.
The first came from a trademark raking pass into the left corner by Eoin Porter, with Jason Dunne cutting inside before firing over a real beauty.
The second was a solo effort from the inspiring Matthew Cody, as he intercepted an attempted Clann na nGael pass out of defence and made ground before thumping the ball over the bar (0-13 to 0-11).
A jersey tug on Daragh Griffin led to Eoin Ó Gríofa making it a one-point game just 63 seconds into the closing ten minutes.
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown had chances but couldn't make them count, with a Porter '45 cleared, while Aaron Ryan kicked one short and followed up with a wide before he earned a free but Bolger missed the target from 45 metres.
Clann na nGael launched two dangerous attacks near the end, but the first was foiled by 42-year-old veteran Ollie 'Goose' Bolger, while Eoin Porter followed his example by winning the ball back when the opposition threatened again.
It was frantic stuff, but Rathgarogue-Cushinstown were defiant and the scenes that greeted the final whistle were simply wonderful to witness.
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown: Nicky Sinnott; Pádraig McGrath, Peadar Cody, Patrick Murphy; Brian O'Neill, Eoin Porter, Bryan Cody (0-1); Daniel Martin Carroll, Matthew Cody (capt., 0-2); Tadhg Cody (0-1), Daire Bolger (0-6, 5 frees), Bernard Furlong; Robert Murphy (0-1), Eric Cummins, Jason Dunne (0-1). Subs. - Aaron Ryan (0-1) for Carroll, inj. (18), Ollie Bolger for R. Murphy (51), Mark Power for P. Cody, black card (59), Luke O'Connor for Cummins (75), Paddy Barron for Dunne (78), Jonathan Kelly for Ryan (80+2), also Neil Merrigan, Fionn Slattery, Ian Kennedy, Ricky McGrath, Chris Kent, Eoin Burke, David Donnelly, Liam O'Shea, Mark Carroll, Aodhán Slattery.
Clann na nGael: Eoin Ó Gríofa (0-4 frees); Rory Tuite, Jack Doherty (0-2 frees), Carl Kelly; Connor Fenton (0-1), Diarmaid Ó Donnchadha, Ryan McNamee; Daragh Griffin (capt., 0-1), Cian Swaine (0-3 frees); Paul Tuite (0-1), Philip Garry, Eamon Ó Donnchadha; Tomás Ó hAinle, Cóilín Griffin, Thomas Doyle. Subs. - Darragh Swaine for Doyle (33), Christopher Uchenna for Ó hAinle (51), Micheál Coffey for C. Griffin (64), Michael Priest for P. Tuite (77), Aaron Ennis for McNamee (80).
Referee: David Fedigan (Louth).