By Brendan McTaggart
Having sealed a record 11th provincial title, Cushendall players, management and supports were awash with a mix of relief and ecstasy. Playing with the wind in the first half they dominated Ballycran and thoroughly deserved their eight point half time lead. The Ruairi’s refused to let Ballycran have any momentum in the opening 30 minutes and while the second half was always going to be a different proposition, the experience and knowhow within the Cushendall set up was always going to be a telling factor.
What no-one could have foreseen beforehand though was the off day the Down champions would have from placed ball. Three different takers in the second half with the normally accurate Colum McManus and Conor Woods misfiring along with Scott Nicholson. Five chances came and gone in a dogged second half but Ballycran took too long to impose themselves on the game. The pressure told in the second half and they found the Cushendall defence were in no mood to give them an inch.
When we spoke with the Rauiri’s coach Ciaran Kearney, he told us: “The second half wasn’t pretty but we were happy with the first half. I think there was six or eight in it at half time then eight in the end. It was dogged and maybe if they had a free taker. If they had a free taker on form today it might have been different but Neil (McManus) was bang on today.
“Again what a super performance from him. The lads were dogged in a physical game, bordering on one or two things that I wouldn’t have been overly fussed on but the boys kept their composure. Even at the end they were trying to get us dragged into something in the square at the end there but the lads knew to keep their cool but listen, we’re delighted.”
Sean McAfee’s first half goal was a huge factor on the outcome of the game. It helped the Ruairi’s build a substantial half time lead and Kearney told us he felt McAfee was the correct choice to replace Conor Carson: “Conor Carson was a massive loss for us today. We knew early in the week he wasn’t able to come and we went with Sean McAfee, that like for like threat that has worked for us in the last couple of weeks. Sean went in and got his goal and it was great. I thought he was getting pulled and dragged left right and centre, how he didn’t get frees, I’ll never know but the lads kept their composure.”
The team work and determination shown from the Ruairi’s in the second half helped them to repel the expected Ballycran second half charge. They dropped deeper to starve the Down forwards of room with Sean Delargy, Alex Delargy and Natty McNaughton all coming deep at different times. Kearney reserved praise for another of the Ruairi’s stars: “In the second half after the break, we got one or two points from play. Neil, Natty and Eoghan Campbell and that kind of took us home.
“I thought our full back line were brilliant. Very solid considering they were playing a team that scored four goals against Slaughtneil.
“You saw what Ryan McCambridge done in the last 15 minutes there. That’s what he’s capable off and that’s what we’ve been at him to do. He was fantastic.
“We didn’t look past Ballycran. This talk of Cushendall being the team you want to get in an Ulster final, this Cushendall team of 2018 is a different animal. They’ve proved that this year and I’m so delighted.
“They’re getting their rewards for their hard work all year and we’ll enjoy this for a night or two but we’ll knuckle down and see what follows.”
Cushendall now progress to an All-Ireland semi-final with the winners of St Thomas’ and Liam Mellows from Galway in February.There was gold at the end of the Ruairi Og rainbow. Pic by John McIlwaine