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Long road to Croker with 13 steps to national decider

AIB All-Ireland JFC Final preview: Na Gaeil v Rathgarogue-Cushinstown, Croke Park, Saturday January 25, 3.15pm

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Ella Hussey, Alisha Kent, Freya Murphy, May Heaphy, Ave Kiely-Kelly, Grace Bolger, Eve Flanagan and Cara Caulfield showing their support for the team in Cushinstown National School

Ella Hussey, Alisha Kent, Freya Murphy, May Heaphy, Ave Kiely-Kelly, Grace Bolger, Eve Flanagan and Cara Caulfield showing their support for the team in Cushinstown National School

Ella Hussey, Alisha Kent, Freya Murphy, May Heaphy, Ave Kiely-Kelly, Grace Bolger, Eve Flanagan and Cara Caulfield showing their support for the team in Cushinstown National School

When the Rathgarogue-Cushinstown footballers take to the stage in Croke Park on Saturday, it will be their fourteenth outing in a campaign that began in less than auspicious circumstances.

Their first game in the Intermediate 'A' grade resulted in a 1-13 to 1-10 loss to Volunteers in Gusserane on March 30, and it's interesting to note that 13 of the starters for that opening round were also on the 15 that accounted for Blackhill on the most recent leg of the journey.

The versatile Nicky Sinnott scored two points from corner-forward in that tie, but he has since replaced Jonathan Kelly between the posts.

Robert Murphy is now a starter, after coming on against the Vols in a game that the newcomers entered minus the services of the giant-hearted Bernard Furlong.

Apart from netminder Kelly, goalscorer Luke O'Connor was the only man to start in the first game that wasn't on the field in Newbridge.

Furlong was back in midfield one week later when St. Martin's were beaten by 1-14 to 3-4, an important result in every sense given that the same side had prevailed when they met in the Junior county final of 2017.

Success over Kilanerin in the All-County League Division 3 final (1-13 to 1-12) ought to have acted as a big boost, coming a mere four days before the championship campaign resumed after a 16-week break.

However, it didn't work out that way, with the loss of top scorer Daire Bolger clearly a big blow as Kilmore romped home by 4-16 to 1-13.

He was back on board one week later for the local derby with Adamstown in Taghmon, but a late Tony French point denied Rathgarogue-Cushinstown their second win and ensured a share of the spoils (0-11 each).

With just one game left, it ensured that James Bolger's side were in a precarious position in a very tight group.

Indeed, they were fifth out of sixth prior to the last round, with their three points leaving them behind Volunteers (6), Adamstown (5), Craanford and Kilmore (4 each), and above St. Martin's (2).

Their meeting with Craanford in Fr. Murphy Park on August 23 was effectively a straight shoot-out for a knockout place, and Rathgarogue-Cushinstown responded to the pressure in explosive fashion with a resounding 4-22 to 0-7 victory.

It was enough to leapfrog over Adamstown into a third place finish, and confine their Gorey District rivals to the no man's land of fifth, with Nicky Sinnott playing his first game of the campaign between the posts.

A major statement of intent followed one week later, as 2018 runners-up Cloughbawn were obliterated in the quarter-final by 4-16 to 1-3, with Sinnott goaling from the penalty spot for the second game running, and Luke O'Connor netting twice off the bench.

The semi-final draw offered the perfect chance to assess the extent of the progress made, as it pitted Rathgarogue-Cushinstown against Kilmore, twelve-point winners of their previous meeting.

It didn't look good when the seasiders led by 2-6 to 2-2 at half-time, and the gap was stretched to five before the Ross District side hit 1-6 without reply to advance on a 3-8 to 2-7 scoreline.

Eric Cummins goaled from an acute angle with eight minutes left to give his side the lead for the first time, and they never looked back.

Weather conditions were terrible for the county final in O'Kennedy Park, New Ross, on September 28, but Rathgarogue-Cushinstown produced some sparkling football to see off neighbours Clongeen by 5-9 to 2-9.

Nearly twelve months on from their success in the lower grade, the win evoked memories of 1980 and 1981 when the club completed a Junior and Intermediate double.

With plenty of time to celebrate, the players were refreshed and eager when they journeyed to Dr. Tierney Park in Graiguenamanagh five weeks later and saw off the stiff challenge of Kilkenny Intermediate winners Mooncoin by 1-14 to 1-9, with Aaron Ryan making a vital three-point contribution off the bench.

A return to their happy hunting ground of O'Kennedy Park followed, first of all for an 0-11 to 0-6 success against Craobh Chiaráin from Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final on November 9.

And the short trip into New Ross brought further satisfaction a fortnight later, with Daire Bolger's second-half goal making all the difference as Shannonbridge from Offaly were ousted by 1-8 to 0-7.

The Leinster title was annexed in Páirc Tailteann, Navan, on December 7, with extra-time required before two superb late points from Jason Dunne and Matthew Cody got the job done against Clann na nGael from Meath by 0-13 to 0-12.

And another one-point margin proved sufficient in the All-Ireland semi-final in St. Conleth's Park, Newbridge, on January 11, with Tadhg Cody's late score accounting for Blackhill Emeralds from Monaghan by 1-7 to 1-6.

The journey now ends in Croke Park - a dream that every club holds dear.

Wexford People