Friday 19 January 2018

Magical moments in a season full of surprises

Paul Ryan’s finish was sublime, a rocket into the right-hand corner that gave James Skehill no chance’
Paul Ryan’s finish was sublime, a rocket into the right-hand corner that gave James Skehill no chance’

Jamesie O'Connor

Jamesie O'Connor selects five, and it could have been 50, memorable scenes from what has been a wildly unpredictable hurling year so far

Declan Hannon's tackle

Along with Dublin's complete and utter transformation, and over the last fortnight, Kilkenny's defiance and refusal to bend, Limerick have been the story of this incredible summer. Despite their failure to secure promotion, the Munster semi-final with Tipperary was always going to be the game that defined their season and they were guaranteed to bring everything they had to this one, especially in the tighter confines of the Gaelic Grounds.

On a day when they got some great scores, defended heroically and had to come from behind in the last 20 minutes, one moment stood out. Limerick have always been at their best when they've been able to bring a level of controlled aggression to their play. If they don't have that manic intensity, they're at nothing. But when there's a passion and fury about their play, the crowd responds, players feed off it, and they become a very, very difficult side to play against.

Midway through the second half, Tipperary's Shane McGrath was coming out of defence with the ball when Declan Hannon drove him out over the sideline with a perfectly timed shoulder. Despite McGrath's best efforts to keep the ball in play, when the linesman raised his flag to signal a Limerick ball, Hannon pumped his fist, the roof nearly came off the stand, and you could sense the lift it gave the Limerick players.

Ideally, Hannon would have pointed the resultant sideline. He didn't, but it was no less a seminal moment in a tumultuous match and the scenes afterwards, and again after the Munster final, were a throwback to the glory days when Limerick were a force to be reckoned with.

Danny Sutcliffe' s goal

I was working with TV3 at the Clare-Cork game in Limerick when word filtered through that Walter Walsh's last-gasp equaliser had earned Kilkenny a draw with Dublin. I think I drew the same conclusions as most – Dublin's opportunity had passed.

Yet the following Saturday evening in Portlaoise, Dublin stood up, showed real character and went toe to toe again with Kilkenny. Having played with the elements and driven by an outstanding first half from Dotsy O'Callaghan, Dublin had every chance. Danny Sutcliffe and Conal Keaney were working ferociously in the half-forward line, the defence, particularly the half- back line, were on top, and yet Kilkenny were inching their way back towards parity.

Midway through the second half, just when the Cats finally looked like they were getting a grip on the game, sub Mark Schutte set up a great goal chance for Dotsy. Lester Ryan did brilliantly to take the ball off the line and the chance looked gone. However, as the ball broke out Sutcliffe came bursting on to it. He could have tapped it over the bar but the opportunity was there and he had the nerve to grasp it. Powering through the tackle, he took one look and buried it.

Psychologically, it was the decisive score. The surge of adrenalin it gave Dublin copper-fastened their belief that Kilkenny were there for the taking. At a stroke, any doubts that might have been creeping in were wiped out, and while Kilkenny kept going to the end, the goal was the cushion Dublin needed. The better team had won. Finally for Dublin, deliverance had come against the side that had inflicted so much pain over the years.

JJ Delaney's block

I rolled into Kilkenny at half past four on Saturday, July 6, a full two and a half hours before throw-in for the most eagerly anticipated hurling qualifier ever played.

The atmosphere and tension in Nowlan Park that evening is hard to convey, but I thought it was special. With the stakes as high as they were, goals were going to be seismic. Lar Corbett had struck early for Tipperary and his departure before half-time was a pivotal moment.

However, to my mind the game turned on one incident early in the second half. Tipperary midfielder James Woodlock made a brilliant run through the Kilkenny defence. While he could have pointed, space opened ahead of him and an opportunity to keep going presented itself. His decision making and execution in the circumstances were first class.

Committing JJ Delaney, Woodlock released a perfect pass to Eoin Kelly. My thoughts were 'goal'; Tipp had the right man in the right place at the right time. However, Kelly had a similar chance at a key moment in the second half of the 2009 All-Ireland final, but slipped just as he pulled the trigger, and the ball was saved. Maybe that flashed through his mind, but he seemed to delay that fraction of a second before blasting goalwards. Unfortunately for Tipp, that split second was all it took for the retreating Delaney to throw his body in the path of the ball, and his right arm somehow deflected it away to safety.

From the position he'd been in a second earlier, Delaney had no right to get anywhere near the ball. But one of the greatest defenders that I've ever seen had the desire, will and commitment to put his body on the line for the Kilkenny cause.

Tipp failed to create another goal chance, and as they've done over the last three years, the Kilkenny defence ultimately wore them down to seal a victory as sweet as any this great team has tasted.

Kevin Moran's equaliser

On a truly epic night in Thurles last weekend, just eight minutes remained and Kilkenny led Waterford by 1-12 to 0-10. It wasn't a vintage performance, but with Jackie Tyrrell, Paul Murphy and the Kilkenny defence repelling attack after attack, it looked like Waterford's race was run. To their credit, they kept hanging in.

Darragh Fives, with three points from play, had put in a massive shift in the middle for Waterford, but he was tiring and to give the side renewed impetus Michael Ryan made the decision to bring his captain Kevin Moran to midfield. That decision was vindicated when in the 69th minute Moran collected a ball in his own half and on the run, landed an inspirational score from outside his own '65'.

One between them. With the clock ticking into added-time, Waterford worked the ball out from their own goal and Moran collected it just inside his own half. With Eoin Larkin on his shoulder, he elected to run, soloing 50 metres – Larkin with him every step of the way. In textbook fashion, he hooked the Waterford captain perfectly as he shot for the equaliser. Yet, in a flash, Moran gathered the ball as it bounced, spun on to his other side and without looking, bisected the posts with a truly outrageous effort. The passage of play had everything – attack, defence, courage. The sheer honesty of effort by both players after 71 punishing minutes spoke volumes about their character.

Paul Ryan's goal

Forty minutes into the Leinster final, and up by eight, Dublin had been the patently superior side in the Leinster final. But that lead is nothing in hurling and Galway had Joe Canning. The sides traded points and as the ball was cleared from the Dublin defence, as he had all day, Conal Keaney soared above a Galway defender and grabbed it from the sky.

Heading for goal, he shot for a point, but half hooked, the ball ran on into the path of full-forward Paul Ryan. With 1-3 already to his name, Ryan was on fire. His first touch was superb, taking him fractionally away from Kevin Hynes and in a flash he was in on goal. The finish was sublime, a rocket into the right-hand corner that gave James Skehill no chance. The scoreboard showed Dublin 2-14 Galway 0-9. Who would have believed it six weeks previously coming out of Wexford Park?

Irish Independent

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