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Birr's Semple sensation

Whelahan's masterclass steers Offaly aces to title...

Whelahan's masterclass steers Offaly aces to title


PAT JOE WHELAHAN comes skipping through the Thurles gloom, a human splash of shrugs and smirks and chuckles.

The little man is tied to Birr by more than a volunteer's charter. It is an umbilical thing. Three sons on the team, 12 surrogates. "Aaah, I'm getting old," smiles Pat Joe, his eyes in cheeky denial.

This is his third time leading Birr to the All-Ireland Club title. No upsets then. No contest.

Clarinbridge fell heavily here and when their coach John McIntyre talked of being "given a hurling lesson," no-one mistook the words for idle flattery.

Once they turned with the wind and began hurling towards the Killinan-end, Birr simply pushed on for history with movement as sure as the fall of darkness. Their third crown, thus, enables the Offaly men to join Athenry (Galway), Blackrock (Cork) and Shamrocks (Kilkenny) astride the roll of honour.

Victory was, at once, impressive and enlightening. For it reminded us, not alone that Offaly teams can simplify hurling like few others, but also that when fitness permits Brian Whelahan resides at a different altitude to mortals of the old game.

Whelahan was simply wonderful here, not so much dominating the contest from centre-back as sweet-talking it to co-operate.

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He read the script imperiously, sweeping behind his midfield and channeling deliveries with a care and intelligence that might profitably be employed by the Ulster Unionist Party.

As Pat Joe put it: "People keep talking about young legs, fast hurlers. Then you look at Brian. I suppose it's all about the secret training we do below in Offaly (laughing)."

Homework had its role too. Typically, Birr started with only one of their front eight Gary Hanniffy operating where selected. So, while Clarinbridge were chasing their bearings, Declan Pilkington turned up at left corner-forward to rifle a sniper's goal after just 27 seconds.

It was a starkly demoralising blow to the Galway men, already you sensed dispirited by the mucky fusion of wind and rain.

They did, slowly, recover though and looked to have summoned serious rhythm ten minutes in when David Donoghue fired high to the net after David Forde's quick, right-wing pull across the Birr 'square' reminded us all of ground hurling's virtues.

Critically, though, neither of the Kerins brothers were putting much of a signature on the day, Mark hopelessly outclassed by the elder Whelahan, Alan harried into anonymity by Niall Claffey who had followed him towards the old-stand.

Seventeen minutes in, when Stephen Brown pointed elegantly for Birr after fine work from Claffey and Gary Hanniffy, Clarinbridge were leading by a miserly 1-2 to 1-1. It was poor return from a howling breeze and McIntyre knew it.

Suddenly, Alan Kerins was moved to full-forward, Forde now operating on the right wing. Soon after, Mark Kerins switched with Forde. It was futile juggling, Birr's defence proving cussed and implacable.

David Donoghue did end the half with a glorious, injury-time altitude score but at just two points to the good Clarinbridge were taking water.

"I knew we were in serious trouble," reflected McIntyre later. "In trouble all over the field. I could say the day didn't suit us but that would be only clutching at straws. We were a beaten team long before the finish."

His honesty was commendable and appropriate. For Birr did not concede a solitary score from play in the remainder.

Within ten minutes of the resumption, they had turned a two-point deficit into a three-point advantage (1-7 to 1-4), scores from Brown and Gary and Rory Hanniffy catching the eye especially. Clarinbridge's predicament was manifest in one small vignette 18 minutes from time. Darragh Coen mis-hit a free into Brian Whelahan's grateful hand and when, almost immediately, David Donoghue collected in promising territory, he was brilliantly hooked by a diving John Paul O'Meara. Ball to ground, light jostling, free out to Birr.

Ten minutes from time, the day's kill-shot. Birr had brought Simon Whelahan out to right-half-forward in a direct swap with Johnny Pilkington. Simon's knee had him operating at "no more than 50 per cent," according to Pat Joe. "Seventy," according to the player himself. Whatever, he was struggling.

But, with smokin' Johnny now inside and off the bridle, Birr finally located the jugular. Rory Hanniffy's long delivery reached JP scampering in from the left corner and, while his shot was uncharacteristically weak and tremulous, it caught Liam Donoghue off balance.

Falling backwards, the Clarinbridge goalkeeper could only spoon the sliotar back to Pilkington and Johnny shoed it home. Game over.

Simon soon added a free and there the scoring ended, Darragh Coen dropping frees short for Clarinbridge in the hope of a lucky touch, Birr just seeing out time.

Last act was for Paul Coen to spill a wide while surrounded by what looked like 24 Birr shirts. The day in microcosm.

Afterwards, Brian Whelahan talked of the victory being Birr's "sweetest ever," though brother, Simon, suggested the '98 triumph held sway because of its proximity to Tommy Errity's passing. Whatever, the Whelahans have more silverware. A small news item, to be fair. Brian alone has now accumulated 11 All-Ireland medals.

Hard lessons, then, for Clarinbridge and McIntyre. But no self-pity.

"Life moves on and we've got to try and pick up these fellas to try and retain the Galway title," said the Tipp man with resolute candour.

"It's the last thing on their minds at the moment. I suppose, ultimately, Clarinbridge's fortunes over the next couple of seasons are going to be defined by how well they react to this defeat. Can they take it on the chin like men? Or will it sink them forever? Only time will tell."

MAN OF THE MATCH Brian Whelahan (Birr).

SCORERS Birr: S Whelahan 0-4f, D Pilkington and J Pilkington 1-0 each, S Brown and G Hanniffy 0-2 each, R Hanniffy 0-1, Brian Whelahan 0-1f. Clarinbridge: D Donoghue 1-1, D Coen 0-4f.

BIRR B Mullins; G Cahill, J Errity, JP O'Meara; N Claffey, Brian Whelahan, D Franks; R Hanniffy, Barry Whelahan; J Pilkington, G Hanniffy, L Power; S Brown, S Whelahan, D Pilkington. Sub: P Molloy for Power (51 mins).

CLARINBRIDGE L Donoghue; M Spelman, A Quinn, G Spelman; J Cannon, M Donoghue, L Madden; D Coen, B Carr; P Coen, M Kerins, A Kerins; C Coen, D Forde, D Donoghue.

REF G Harrington (Cork).

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