Comerford's Gaels have that extra bit of quality
HURLING cooks best on sizzling summer surfaces but it can be a tasty winter dish too if the ingredients are right and the chefs are creative.
That was certainly the case at Nowlan Park yesterday where it took extra-time and 36 scores to sort out the Leinster semi-final, with O'Loughlin Gaels edging a fascinating contest and securing a place in the provincial final for the first time since 2003.
They achieved it with a power surge in extra-time, during which they scored four unanswered points, to finally squeeze the resistance from a Ballyboden St Enda's team that went through a whole range of emotions in their attempt to extend their four-year dominance in Dublin into provincial success. They seemed on track towards achieve that when they raced into a five-point lead (1-3 to 0-1) after seven minutes -- the goal coming from full-forward Conal Keaney, who fetched a delivery from David Sweeney, swerved into a shooting position and beat goalkeeper Stephen Murphy with a crisp shot.
It was one of several excellent moments for Keaney, some of which came when he moved outfield in the second half as the supply lines dried up.
Ballyboden were still five points clear after 25 minutes but all changed in the run-up to half-time when Gaels scored 1-3, the goal coming in stoppage time when Brian Dowling availed of hesitancy in the Ballyboden defence to nudge the ball to the net.
It gave the Kilkenny champions a one-point advantage which even their manager Michael Nolan conceded wasn't a fair reflection of the overall trend.
"We'd have settled for being a few points down at half-time because we were hurled off the field in the first quarter. We got stuck in after that but still weren't hurling as well as we can," he said.
The Gaels brought more precision to their game in the third quarter, during which they opened a three-point lead before Paul Ryan equalised in the 45th minute with a goal from a 20-metre free.
The response from the Martin Comerford-captained Gaels was typical of Kilkenny teams.
Two quick points from top scorer Mark Bergin followed, and while Ballyboden's work rate never sagged it looked as if Gaels would do enough to win in normal time.
However, they were stunned in the 60th minute when Ryan smacked a second free to the net -- this time from around 30 metres -- to give Ballyboden a one-point lead.
The low sun, which was shining into the Gaels' goal was probably a contributory factor to that goal but, whatever the origins, it left Ballyboden heading into stoppage time as leaders.
Only briefly though, as Niall McEvoy fired over the levelling point. Indeed, Gaels had a late chance to snatch victory but Bergin's free from out near the sideline drifted wide.
It would have been harsh on Ballyboden to lose to that free as seconds earlier it looked as if Gary Maguire had been fouled as he made his way out of goal.
Both sides scored two points in the first period of extra-time but Ballyboden drew a blank in the second period whereas Bergin (2), Comerford and Brian Dowling hit the target for the Gaels.
Bergin scored 0-3 from open play and 0-8 from frees, punishing every indiscretion by Ballyboden, whose supporters were very unhappy with referee Dickie Murphy over several decisions.
Manager Liam Hogan declined to be drawn on that issue but declared rather pointedly: "the less said about it the better."
It was all very disappointing for Ballyboden who put themselves in such a great position with that early burst.
However, their dramatic security lapse in the final five minutes of the first half was a serious setback.
"If you take your foot off the pedal you get punished by teams as good as O'Loughlin Gaels.
"Remember they beat the All-Ireland champions (Ballyhale Shamrocks) and a fancied Carrickshock side so they're not Kilkenny champions for nothing. They are a quality side but we showed great character too," said Hogan.
Darragh Spain, Stephen Hiney, midfielders David Curtin and Shane Durkin (especially in the first half), Simon Lambert and Keaney all did well for Ballyboden, while Ryan's efficiency from frees (he scored 2-4 from placed balls) was also hugely significant in Ballyboden's gallant effort.
Ultimately, though, they were weren't quite as subtle as the Gaels for whom Andy and Eddie Kearns, Brian Hogan, Mark Bergin, Brian Dowling, Comerford and Alan Geoghegan were constantly assertive.
It sets them up for a Leinster final bid against Wexford champions Oulart-The Ballagh on Sunday week, a challenge for which they will feel well-prepared after calmly working their way out of difficulty yesterday.
"We're relieved as much as anything else. It's always a worry when you start badly but we felt that if we stayed with our own game we'd get there in the end," said Nolan.
"Those three points and the goal just before half-time made a big difference".
So too did the Gaels' capacity to respond so quickly after Ballyboden scored their second and third goals.
In the end, it all came down to an extra-time shoot-out where the Gaels' ability to score points stood to them against a Ballyboden team that managed just two points from open play in the second half and extra-time.
Scorers -- O'Loughlin Gaels: M Bergin 0-11 (0-8f), B Dowling 1-2, N McEvoy, D Loughnane, A Geoghegan 0-2 each, P Dowling, M Comerford 0-1 each. Ballyboden: P Ryan 2-5 (2-4 f), C Keaney 1-1, D Curtin, S Durkin 0-2 each, J Doody 0-1.
O'Loughlin Gaels -- S Murphy; B Kelly, A Kearns, E Kearns; A O'Brien, B Hogan, N Bergin; P Dowling, S Cummins; A Geoghegan, M Bergin, N McEvoy; B Dowling, M Comerford, D Loughnane. Subs: C Bergin for S Cummins (51); S Cummins for C Bergin (70).
Ballyboden -- G Maguire; B Treacy, D Spain, M O'Sullivan; S Hiney, S Nolan, M Travers; D Curtin, S Durkin; C McCormack, S Lambert, D Sweeney; P Ryan, C Keaney, J Doody. Subs: N McMorrow for Doody (40), P Buckeridge for Sweeney (40), D O'Connor for Lambert (58), D Curran for Treacy (79).
Ref -- D Murphy (Wexford).