Champs on course
GAA Renault Senior Football Championship Semi-final- Rathnew 0-15 AGB 1-11
Rathnew showed every ounce of their experience and guile to emerge as one-point winners in this entertaining clash with AGB and secure their place in the 2018 Renault Senior Football Championship final where they will take on neighbours St Patrick's in the decider.
Facing one of the most dangerous of the sides in this year's championship in terms of speed and attacking potential, Harry Murphy's men survived a shaky opening 10 minutes where they were helped by a woefully inaccurate AGB side to power on to 0-10 to 0-4 half-time lead from which AGB were always going to find it difficult to recover.
It was a half-time deficit that Damien Redmond's men didn't need. In fact, against Rathnew, it's the last position you want to find yourself in if you have had copious amount of chances to make a better impression on the scoreboard.
Once Rathnew smelled the uncertainty in the AGB attack they grew in confidence. Having been fairly carved open by the young Arklow side in the opening minutes, Rathnew started to give Damien Redmond's defence plenty to think about with Leighton Glynn, Nicky Mernagh and Jody Merrigan proving to be in scintillating form, not to mention the incredible fielding from midfielder James Stafford - his many catches included a one-handed pluck from the sky, not his first and hopefully not his last either - that drove Rathnew on to their healthy half-time advantage.
At 0-10 to 0-4 at the break the game comes down to management. Attack when desirable, hold when advisable, delay where applicable and weather the storm where possible. And Rathnew are masters at game management.
AGB grew into this game more and more as the second half continued but a strong burst between the 38th and 45th minute where the Villagers record points from the inspirational Nicky Mernagh, Eddie Doyle and Mernagh again provided Harry Murphy's men with the protection to survive the impact of Philip Healy's 48th minute major and AGB's relatively strong finish with the wind in Joule Park Aughrim.
The start of this game was delayed and when the action got underway it was AGB who hit the ground running in every sense apart from scoring.
Philip Healy, Cormac O'Shea and Cathal Kelleher had three wides on the board from impressive attacks before Leighton Glynn collected a James Stafford ball to point in what was Rathnew's first real attack.
A foul on Cal Kelly by the very impressive JT Moorehouse saw Cormac O'Shea inexplicably miss and Eddie Doyle increased Rathnew's advantage with a converted free before AGB clocked up two more wides, the first from JP Hurley, the second from Karl Kirwan.
By the end of the first quarter Rathnew were in a very strong position after points from Eddie Doyle (free), a most magnificent minor from the in-form Jody Merrigan off the outside of the boot and a second from Leighton Glynn to leave Harry Murphy's side 0-5 to 0-0 as AGB faltered fatally in front of the posts.
Determined to get his team up and running on the scoreboard, centre back Cal Kelly grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and drove up the field and lashed over the bar for AGB's opener after 15.
The talented Mark Doyle swung over a free and following a Philip Healy point at the other end Doyle would gather another stunningly accurate James Stafford ball to raise his second white flag of the day and Rathnew's seventh with 20 gone.
Jody Merrigan and Nicky Mernagh pointed either side of a Stephen Hurley score for AGB before Cathal Kelleher and Eddie Doyle traded scores to leave Rathnew leading by 0-10 to 0-4 at the break and a mountain to climb for Damien Redmond's men.
Nicky Mernagh's second-half performance was simply stunning. He opened the scoring to push Rathnew out to 0-11 to 0-4 but he chased, hunted and attacked with relentless zeal and drive and once AGB gathered possession it was he along with James Stafford and Leighton Glynn who drifted back to try and thwart the approaching enemy.
That enemy got their second-half scoring up and going from a Philip Healy free and Chris O'Brien, named at midfield but played inside along with Healy, drove over a stunner to leave just five between the teams. O'Brien was brought out the field later in the game and whether he might have had more of an impact out around the middle had he been switched earlier is a question worth considering.
Around this time Rathnew lost Damien Power to an ankle injury and Harry Murphy will be hoping that his talismanic full-back is back in full health for the county final against St Pat's.
A super burst from Paul Merrigan allowed Nicky Mernagh the chance to point and make it double scores at 0-12 to 0-6 and his point was followed by one from Philip Healy at the other end before Eddie Doyle and Mernagh again gave Rathnew some breathing space at 0-14 to 0-7.
With 15 to go, AGB kicked into gear. A Healy free for a foul on Chris O'Brien by Nicky Mernagh was followed by a high ball down into the dressing room end square and up rose Healy to flick home past the despairing Peter Dignam.
AGB were in a good place now and they followed up the goal with two fine points from Chris O'Brien and Cormac O'Shea, but Rathnew seemed always able to deflate their mini revivals with a well-worked score of their own and on this occasion it was the mightily impressive Jody Merrigan who popped up to deflate the AGB bubble and make it 0-15 to 0-10 with five to go.
Philip Healy would point a free after a foul on O'Shea but a collision between Jack Hamilton and Mark Doyle would see the immediate replacement of the AGB substitute while Mark Doyle would remain on the field for a time before he too was removed.
Referee Noel Kinsella sounded the final whistle shortly afterwards to the pure delight of the Rathnew supporters and players.
They march on to the county final where they will face the neighbours St Pat's and Harry Murphy's men look to defend their crown.
AGB must reflect on what night have been.
A delayed start to the game that left them waiting out on the field, that disastrous start that gave them a mountain to climb and some unusually below par performances from key men are just some of the reasons for this defeat.
Damien Redmond's side are coming, though. Stephen Hurley, James Tyrrell, and Tom Maher were best.
A superb showing from Nicky Mernagh, the arrival of JT Moorehouse, Stafford sublime as usual, Jody Merrigan looking full of the joys of football and Mark Doyle causing all sorts of bother were just some of the highlights for Rathnew. The final should be epic.
Scorers - Rathnew: Nicky Mernagh 0-4, Eddie Doyle 0-4 (2f), Jody Merrigan 0-3, Mark Doyle 0-2 (1f), Leighton Glynn 0-2.
AGB: Philip Healy 1-5 (3f), Chris O'Brien 0-2, Cathal Kelleher 0-2, Stephen Hurley 0-1, Cormac O'Shea 0-1.
Rathnew: Peter Dignam; Paul Merrigan, Damien Power, Jamie Snell; JT Moorehouse, Ross O'Brien, John Manley; James Stafford, Theo Smyth; Eddie Doyle, Jody Merrigan, Danny Staunton; Nicky Mernagh, Mark Doyle, Leighton Glynn. Subs: Warren Kavanagh for D Power (inj), Enan Glynn for J Manley, Philly Murphy for M Doyle (inj).
AGB: Mervyn Travers; Karl Kirwan, James Tyrrell, Tom Maher; Ciaran O'Shea, Cal Kelly, Andrew Maher; JP Hurley, Chris O'Brien; Darragh Fitzgerald, Cormac O'Shea, Peter Hempenstall; Stephen Hurley, Philip Healy, Cathal Kelleher. Subs: Cormac Hyland for C Kelleher, Jack Hamilton for C Kelly, Ciaran Hyland for J Hamilton (inj).
Referee: Noel Kinsella (Kilbride)