Wednesday 22 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Birr blitz leaves Castle' in ruins

BIRR 4-17 CASTLETOWN 1-9 MOVE along folks, nothing to see here. You don't queue to see leaves fall, right? Well, that's pretty much all we got in Nowlan Park yesterday.

"Don't read into that," Richie Power advised man-of-the-match, Brian Whelahan, at the close. "Oh, we're not going to," responded Whelahan. Power, a former Kilkenny giant, is Castletown's manager. He knows an aberration when he sees one.

Birr have not lost a Championship game since Castletown found their measure precisely three years ago. They should be sated. They should be vulnerable. Looks like they are neither. Maybe 1,200 watched them dismantle habitually awkward opponents with compelling frankness in this Leinster semi-final. But, as Whelahan sensibly surmised, "Castletown didn't hurl at all today."

Birr were a goal to the good inside 23 seconds, Michael Dwane scooping home after the Castletown defence was caught sleepy. And it was the early attacking form of Dwane, Paul O'Meara and Dylan Hayden that caught the eye.

Injuries have necessitated urgent surgery on the Birr attack and yesterday's evidence suggests a prudent eye has overseen it. But, almost inevitably, the real sophistication came a few strides south of midfield.

In the absence of his injured brothers, Whelahan was the star turn. He choreographed the game impeccably, endlessly simplifying things with superior touch and movement.

Castletown did feign a belligerent mindset in the eighth minute when Patrick Phelan goaled after Birr failed to deal with a John Palmer 'line cut. And John Paul O'Meara had been required to make a fine, saving intercept on Phelan just before Paul Cuddy's free brought Castletown to within a point of the All-Ireland champions. But the belligerence was illusory.

In the 16th minute, Declan Pilkington took a lovely Whelahan delivery, spun away from Tom Phelan, raced 30 yards and nailed a perfect finish past John Lyons in the Castletown goal. Then, in first half injury-time, Johnny Pilkington cleverly controlled a high arrival from Dwane with his first touch and rifled past Lyons with his second. Birr 3-8; Castletown 1-5. Dum de dum.

Castletown did not register another score until the 17th minute of the second half, by which time they were 16 points adrift and down a man.

Birr's fourth goal had come seven minutes after the resumption, Dwane again scooping home after a Whelahan free hit the defence like a strong laxative. Rory Hanniffy, Hayden and Whelahan followed up with points before John O'Sullivan was sent off for his second intemperate pull inside eight minutes. Now we were playing to stereotype.

Hayden went on a little scoring burst as Birr stretched for home and the champions led by 20 points approaching injury-time, only for a late little necklace of Laois points from JR Kingston (two) and Cyril Cuddy to break the monotony. Birr march on to a final against O'Loughlins of Kilkenny then.

They'll take beating.

SCORERS - Birr: M Dwane 2-0; D Hayden 0-5 (1f); D Pilkington 1-1; P O'Meara 0-3; J Pilkington 1-0; R Hanniffy and G Hanniffy 0-2 each; Brian Whelahan 0-2 (1f); S Browne and N Rodgers 0-1 each. Castletown: P Phelan 1-2 (2f); JR Kingston 0-3; Paul Cuddy 0-2 (1f); C Cuddy and D Cuddy 0-1 each.

BIRR - B Mullins; JP O'Meara, J Errity, G Cahill; N Claffey, Brian Whelahan, D Franks; S Browne, R Hanniffy; P O'Meara, G Hanniffy, D Pilkington; D Hayden, J Pilkington, M Dwane. Subs: P Carroll for R Hanniffy (51), P Cleary for JP O'Meara (52), N Rodgers for G Hanniffy (55), L Power for D Pilkington (55), M Quinlan for Cahill (59).

CASTLETOWN - J Lyons; T Phelan, R Delaney, M Phelan; D Keenan, P Cuddy, C Cuddy; J Palmer, J O'Sullivan; Pauric Cuddy, D Cuddy, F O'Sullivan; P Phelan, JR Kingston, J Hooban. Subs: B Ferns for F O'Sullivan (ht), O Dooley for Palmer (38), P Mullaney for M Phelan (38), B McKelvey for Pauric Cuddy (38), T Dooley for P Phelan (52).

REF - E Morris (Dublin).

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