Wednesday 17 January 2018

Simple for Birr as Simon returns with interest

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

BIRR 2-10 ; CASTLETOWN 0-5 PAUL CUDDY knelt on one knee, hand to his face, eyes resolutely down as Birr assembled for a jaunty coronation in Nowlan Park.

Brian Whelahan strolled over and gently patted the full-back's helmet, but Cuddy seemed oblivious, like a man standing in the ashes of what was once his home. There had been no mercy here and, worse, no contest.

A brutal compound of every Castletown fear came into play yesterday as Birr torqued mercilessly to their fifth AIB Leinster club hurling title, driven out of sight by Simon Whelahan, his number 27 shirt an almost goading reminder of spurned opportunity for the Laois men.

Two weeks ago, the Birr captain limped up and down the tramlines, a helpless spectator as Castletown assembled an imposing seven points lead. But, of course, that lead dissolved and the draw offered Whelahan a critical reprieve.

So, the sight of him springing purposefully from the tunnel before throw-in came as a rather gloomy portent for Paddy Kirwan's men. And, truth to tell, they never quite overcame it.

Whelahan's personal tally from full-forward of 1-8 (1-4 from play) earned him a Man of the Match gong and the eternal distrust of journalists who were assured throughout the week that his chances of making this replay wavered somewhere between slim and none.

Still, Castletown fell to savvy not subterfuge here.

On December 2, they failed to register a solitary score in the concluding 23 minutes of battle. Yesterday, they drew a blank for the final 28. These are not the statistics of an unlucky team.

As hope began to bleed away, Castletown occasionally began to swing the ash injudiciously. Indeed, Birr boss, Pat Joe Whelahan having seen his eldest son, Brian, ship some undignified blows branded the Castletown performance as "terrible." He said: "I wasn't too happy with the way they were hurling."

To be fair, Castletown weren't as bad as it sounds, though some of their co-ordination was a little off. They were well in this game for the opening 28 minutes only to then suffer a calamitous blow on the cusp of half-time.

Birr were leading 0-6 to 0-4 when the ever-impressive Stephen Brown fielded a Donal Franks clearance, slalomed menacingly in from the left wing and depatched bullet-like to the net past a helpless John Lyons. Seconds later, Simon lobbed a breathtaking score almost from the Athy road and Castletown went to their tea, trailing by six and traumatised.

Brown had been labouring at midfield, but his move to the corner, with Rory Hanniffy moving out the field, proved the tactical whetstone for their triumph.

Brian Whelahan was his usual wonder of wrist and wile at centre-back, utterly unperturbed by Castletown's decision to start David Cuddy on the '40.' In fact, Birr might have been even further clear at half-way, but for Lyons' stunning point-blank stop from Gary Hanniffy in the 18th minute.

As it happened, that was to be no more than a suspension of reality.

Needing an impressive re-start, Castletown had already hit an upright through Fionan O'Sullivan when midfielder, John Palmer, pointed in the 32nd minute. The pretence of revival lasted roughly 80 seconds.

That's how long it took for Birr to nail the crucial second goal, Liam Power initially missing what looked a simple opportunity only for the sliotar to spin up invitingly for Simon Whelahan whose first-time pull almost ripped the netting off Lyons' goal.

There, effectively, it ended.

In their desperation, Castletown drew Paul Cuddy out of full-back, but the house was already an inferno.

So, history repeated then, Birr replicating the Leinster final wins over Castletown of '97 and '99 (albeit by their biggest margin) and the Laois men reduced to angst-ridden bit-players.

Pat Joe Whelahan was not peddling much sympathy.

"Castletowm just weren't at the races," he said. "They weren't good enough on the day." Birr now meet Dunloy in the All-Ireland semi-final on February 17 in Clones.

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