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Birr pushed to the limit by battling St Rynagh's

BIRR 0-11; ST RYNAGH'S 0-10 NO-HOPERS St Rynagh's made Birr battle all the way before the money-on favourites landed their 16th Offaly SHC title, at rain-lashed St Brendans Park, Birr yesterday.

Indeed, the town side required two injury time points from former county star Declan Pilkington and current county ace Niall Claffey to chalk up their first hat-trick of Offaly titles.

With 60 minutes up, the contest was balanced on a knife-edge, the adversaries being tied at 0-9 each following a full eleven minutes of scoring stalemate.

But then the highly industrious Pilkington, who retired from the inter-county scene in 1996, found a bit of space on the right wing and steered the ball over the bar from about 45 metres.

"A lot of the St Rynagh's players had pushed up field, as fortunately that left me with a bit of space after John Paul O'Meara had driven the ball out of our defence, and Gary Hanniffy had hit it onto me," explained Pilkington who earlier in the half had set up a point for team captain Simon Whelehan.

Almost immediately after Pilkington's crucial score, Claffey landed another long range point. But before the final whistle Birr experienced some anxious moments, with Eunan Martin, a son of legendary goalkeeper Damien Martin, pointing a free and being just off target with an equalising attempt for the Banagher side, from a free about 80 metres out.

"I knew that our fellas needed to hurl out of their skins to put it up to Birr, and thankfully that was what they did," said St Rynagh's manager Pádraig Horan, who harboured an amalgam of disappointment with the result and satisfaction with his team's performance.

"We were in the match right up to the end and that speaks volumes for the display of our lads against what I consider is the best club team in the country."

For most of an interesting and highly combative contest, the Banagher team made a mockery of the pre-match predictions, refusing to be overawed by Birr's reputation and pedigree, and really taking the game to the reigning champions.

Indeed the favourites failed to register the first score until the 13th minute, by which time St Rynagh's had two points on the board.

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And the holders were always trailing until Barry Whelahan, who had a storming game at midfield, put them 0-8 to 0-7 in front after eight minutes of the second half. In between, St Rynagh's led 0-5 to 0-2 after seventeen minutes and 0-6 to 0-3 at half-time.

In the first half, the alarm bells were frequently ringing in the Birr full-back-line because of the resourceful play of St Rynagh's duo Fintan Dolan and Kevin Kelly.

And the Birr goal had a narrow escape after ten minutes, when John Ryan, who frequently tested county team-mates Brian Whelahan, set up Gary Healy, only for the latter to fluff a golden goal opportunity.

St Rynagh's central defenders, Martin Hanamy and Hubert Rigney mounted stiff resistance to the Birr attack in which the chief threat was provided by Declan Pilkington and Simon Whelahan.

SCORERS Birr: S Whelahan 0-4 (3f), G Hanniffy, Barry Whelahan 0-2, N Claffey, J Pilkington, D Pilkington 0-1. St Rynagh's: F Dolan 0-4 (3f), G O'Connor, J Ryan 0-2, E Martin 0-2 (2f).

BIRR B Mullins; G Cahill, J Errity, J P O'Meara; D Franks, Brian Whelahan, N Claffey; J Pilkington, Barry Whelahan; D Pilkington; S Whelahan, P Molloy; S Brown, G Hanniffy, R Hanniffy. Subs: L Power for Brown 42.

ST RYNAGH'S D McDermott; A Clancy, M Hanamy, R Devery; S Horan, H Rigney, M Rigney; D Kelly, N Woods; G O'Connor, J Ryan, E Martin; G Healy, F Dolan, K Kelly. Subs: D Tanner for Woods 35 mins.

REF G Kirwan (Ballyskenagh).